Objective Morality

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Throughout our history, the most noticeable way in which we’ve progressed morally has been by expanding our in-groups to include more and more outsiders. As Stefan Klein and Stephen Cave write:

The possibility of moral progress […] is of course a vexed idea: […] what might seem like progress to one will seem like decadent descent to another. But we believe that it is possible to give it a definite content in a way that helps to make sense of both past and future ethical evolution.

That content is based on a simple and ancient idea: that morality means giving common concerns or the wellbeing of others as much weight as one’s own self-interest. Moral behaviour in this sense can be found in any society, because it is the glue that sticks individuals together and so makes society possible. Indeed, the basis of this morality – altruism – is innate to humans, as many recent studies have shown. Without ever having been told to do so, even toddlers are willing to help and to share with others.

The tricky question is who exactly counts as the ‘other’ whose interests we should set above our own? Every society has had its own answers, as does each one of us: we expect you would go to much greater lengths to do good for your child than for your neighbour, and it would be easier to lie to your boss than to your spouse. And some beings, whether animal, vegetable or microbial, are outside the realm of consideration altogether. In moral terms, some always matter more than others.

This understanding offers us a fairly straightforward idea of moral progress: it means including ever more people (or beings) in the group of those whose interests are to be respected. This too is an ancient insight: Hierocles, a Stoic philosopher of the second century, describes us as being surrounded by a series of concentric circles. The innermost circle of concern surrounds our own self; the next comprises the immediate family; then follow more remote family; then, in turn, neighbours, fellow city-dwellers, countrymen and, finally, the human race as a whole. Hierocles described moral progress as ‘drawing the circles somehow toward the centre’, or moving members of outer circles to the inner ones.

We can see the moral progress of recent centuries in these terms: we have witnessed an extension of the circle of respect and concern to various groups such as women, Jews, non-whites or homosexuals. And in these terms, we have come a long way. But it is equally clear that there is room for improvement.

This idea, also commonly associated with Singer’s book The Expanding Circle, might not necessarily be an absolute one, just in that it might not always be optimal for everyone to care exactly as much about those farthest away as they do about those who are right in front of them. In an imperfect world like ours, it’s not too hard to imagine how it might be better for people to have more love and affection for their own children than they do for complete strangers (if only for reasons of efficiency alone; it’s a lot easier to receive care and affection from someone right next to you than from someone a thousand miles away). That being said, though, I tend to think of this more in terms of it being good that people are giving their children extra love, not in terms of it being good that they’re giving strangers less love. If we could someday augment our brains so that everyone literally cared as much about everyone else as they did about themselves, then I could easily imagine the idea of family-exclusive love becoming obsolete, as it was subsumed by this more universal love. (I guess it would have to, actually, since it’s not possible to care about someone more than 100%.)

Caveats aside, I think the analogy of the expanding moral circle is a valuable one in general; and it seems to me that one of the best ways of imagining how we might become more moral in the future is by imagining how we (or our successors) might expand the circle even further than we already have. So what are some potential ways in which we could further expand our circle? Klein and Cave suggest a few possibilities – some of which I’ve already mentioned, but all of which merit further discussion:

1. Rights for future generations. Currently, only people alive now can claim rights. But just as we have extended our circle of moral concern among the living, so it can be extended in time. The problem is clear: we often make decisions that will have impacts on people far into the future – such as producing nuclear waste that will remain toxic for millions of years – yet those future people are not here to stand up for themselves. Neither defining nor granting these rights will be easy. But there are precedents on which we can draw, such as the ways we protect the rights of small children or animals, who also cannot speak for themselves.

So our successors will have to be imaginative in creating a framework robust enough to defend the unborn in the face of the interests of those alive today, with which they often conflict. For we should be under no illusions: to take the rights of future generations seriously would involve massive restrictions on our freedom of action. Currently, we despoil the earth and seas with impunity to enjoy a luxurious lifestyle (by historical standards). In 100 years, this will be seen as wickedness comparable to colonial powers despoiling their colonies. Though our successors will be appalled by our consumerism, we will not find it easy to adjust to more modest ways.

2. Rights for other conscious beings. This too is a plausible extension of the circle of moral concern, and one that is already underway. It is no longer in doubt that non human animals feel pain and indeed many more complex emotions too. They therefore clearly have interests, such as to run free, or pursue social interactions appropriate for their species. To take account of the interests only of humans and not of other animals is therefore increasingly regarded as speciesism – an unjustified discrimination akin to racism or sexism.

The situation for other species is apocalyptic: humans have never raised so many animals for slaughter – five times as many today as in 1950 – while our impact on the environment is causing other species to become extinct a thousand times faster than normal. There will be many difficult decisions ahead as we try to balance human interests against those of other creatures, or the interests of individual animals against the species or the ecosystem. But our descendants will not excuse us for failing to make these decisions just because they are difficult. More likely, they will curse us for killing all the rhinos, and find our consumption of factory farmed sausages as morally repulsive as we now find cannibalism.

As soon as our computers become conscious – and they will – then this extension of concern will apply to them, too.

3. Opening the floodgates. The widening of the circle of moral concern means that employers in the US, for example, can no longer refuse someone a job because he is black or white, Jewish or atheist, disabled or dyslexic – but they can if the applicant is not American. The same applies in most other nations: states can withhold rights and services, and employers can (or even must) withhold jobs just because of the passport someone carries. In 100 years, people might be impressed at today’s levels of welfare and prosperity in the industrialised world, but appalled that access to them depends on the lottery of whether you were born in London or Lagos.

In a world rapidly growing together, this is bound to change. Of course, there will be a great deal of resistance, as there is already to immigration in many wealthy countries. People do not give up their privileges lightly. And it will have its price: strong welfare systems depend on a sense of moral community that could easily be threatened by more migration.

This is closely related to the point that everyone should have the same rights to healthcare, welfare, etc, not just regardless of where they come from, but also regardless of where they are. In other words, we should be doing everything we can to alleviate suffering everywhere. This poses further challenges: influencing conditions in other countries is not so easy as within one’s own borders. Effective action will require nations to give up more of their sovereignty to supranational unions. This too will face fierce resistance. But eventually our descendants will regard themselves as global citizens – and will be appalled that we let 19,000 children every day die from preventable, poverty-related causes.

4. Healing criminals. At the moment, we lock up extraordinarily large numbers of people. In the US alone, two million humans are in prison, ruining not only their lives, but also making their dependents and communities suffer too. But in 100 years, no one will believe we have an absolutely free will and therefore that anyone chooses to be a criminal. Indeed, there is evidence that we lock up those who are least responsible for their decisions – those with the least capacity for self-control, those who suffer from addictions, or who are mentally ill. In the UK, for example, more than 70 per cent of those in prison have two or more mental-health disorders; in the US, more than three times as many people with serious mental illnesses are in prisons than are in hospitals.

We will not find it easy to decide whom to treat, how radically and when; nor to extend understanding and sympathy to those who have committed the worst of crimes. But our great-grandchildren will be appalled at how we locked up millions of people when we should instead have been helping them.

There are many more changes we could imagine. We have barely touched on the question of inequality, for example. Or perhaps our descendants will be appalled at the idea that the development of life-saving medicines is largely left to private industry. Or that flesh-and-blood humans rather than machines should fight wars, or that liberal democracies should export arms. Or perhaps they will look back on the loneliness of life and death for many in the industrialised world with righteous horror.

For many who live through them, these changes will be extremely uncomfortable. But, of course, they won’t be troubling for those who grow up with them, any more than it is troubling for us to see a black President of the US. What is at first experienced as a concession – spending time recycling rubbish, for example – can quickly seem normal, even necessary. Asking ourselves what we might be condemned for in 100 years is a way of smoothing that transition; of projecting ourselves into the shoes of our great-grandchildren, for whom these new conventions will already be unremarkable.

We can also turn our question around and ask, what will our great-grandchildren admire us for? When we look back, we admire those who courageously challenged the norms of their day, such people as Gandhi or the Suffragettes, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela; people who widened the circle of moral concern. We have the chance to do that, too. And if we manage, then perhaps our great-grandchildren will forgive us our sins.

Like I said, each of these points deserves an entire post of its own (and I hope to write at least one for each of them at some point down the line). For the record, I’m not quite as convinced as Klein and Cave are that extending our moral circles would necessarily require such severe sacrifice on everybody’s part – I think there are ways of accomplishing these goals that would only have slight negative effects on society’s wealthiest people, and would leave everyone else considerably better off – but that’s a whole other discussion.

In the meantime, I think their list is valuable because it forces us to think not only about whom we consider to be part of our circle of moral consideration, but also how and why we make that judgment. It seems to me that one of the most important takeaways from their list is how it illustrates the fundamental immorality of allowing people (and other sentient beings) to suffer worse outcomes due to factors that are entirely beyond their control. And that not only includes things like place of birth and mental health status, as Klein and Cave mention, but can even include things like upbringing and innate personality traits.

This last point is a challenging one, because it contradicts some of the principles that make up the very foundation of our modern moral culture. After all, we’ve built our whole society around ideas like meritocracy and “just deserts” and a general attitude that people should be rewarded in life based on things like their level of talent and intelligence and how hard they’re willing to work. But the thing is, traits like talent and intelligence and work ethic can only ever differ from person to person as a result of differences in their genes, or their upbringing, or various other outside influences – and none of those factors are things that people directly control themselves or can claim any personal credit for. If someone (say) happens to be born with a propensity to work hard and apply themselves, then that trait of industriousness is just a result of lucky genetics, not something they earned through their own merit. And likewise, if they got that trait from some other source outside of their own genes, like their parents or peers or mentors, then they can’t claim personal credit for that result either; the fact that they were fortunate enough to have encountered those positive influences, while others might not have been so fortunate, was just a lucky break for them. We put so much emphasis on distinguishing between, on the one hand, people who “don’t deserve” positive outcomes because they merely lucked into them, and on the other hand, people who “do deserve” positive outcomes because of their personal brilliance and diligence and grit and so on; but ultimately, wasn’t the fact that the latter group ended up with those characteristics also the result of pure arbitrary luck? How, then, can we say that anyone truly “deserves” anything?

I’ve been referring to Rawls a lot in this post. Well, as it happens, this idea is yet another major point of emphasis for him. As Thomas Nagel notes, “One point Rawls makes repeatedly is that the natural and social contingencies that influence welfare – talent, early environment, class background – are not themselves deserved. So differences in benefit that derive from them are morally arbitrary.” Sandel elaborates even further:

Rawls presents this argument by comparing several rival theories of justice, beginning with feudal aristocracy. These days, no one defends the justice of feudal aristocracies or caste systems. These systems are unfair, Rawls observes, because they distribute income, wealth, opportunity, and power according to the accident of birth. If you are born into nobility, you have rights and powers denied those born into serfdom. But the circumstances of your birth are no doing of yours. So it’s unjust to make your life prospects depend on this arbitrary fact.

Market societies remedy this arbitrariness, at least to some degree. They open careers to those with the requisite talents and provide equality before the law. Citizens are assured equal basic liberties, and the distribution of income and wealth is determined by the free market. This system – a free market with formal equality of opportunity – corresponds to the libertarian theory of justice. It represents an improvement over feudal and caste societies, since it rejects fixed hierarchies of birth. Legally, it allows everyone to strive and to compete. In practice, however, opportunities may be far from equal.

Those who have supportive families and a good education have obvious advantages over those who do not. Allowing everyone to enter the race is a good thing. But if the runners start from different starting points, the race is hardly fair. That is why, Rawls argues, the distribution of income and wealth that results from a free market with formal equality of opportunity cannot be considered just. The most obvious injustice of the libertarian system “is that it permits distributive shares to be improperly influenced by these factors so arbitrary from a moral point of view.”

One way of remedying this unfairness is to correct for social and economic disadvantage. A fair meritocracy attempts to do so by going beyond merely formal equality of opportunity. It removes obstacles to achievement by providing equal educational opportunities, so that those from poor families can compete on an equal basis with those from more privileged backgrounds. It institutes Head Start programs, childhood nutrition and health care programs, education and job training programs – whatever is needed to bring everyone, regardless of class or family background, to the same starting point. According to the meritocratic conception, the distribution of income and wealth that results from a free market is just, but only if everyone has the same opportunity to develop his or her talents. Only if everyone begins at the same starting line can it be said that the winners of the race deserve their rewards.

Rawls believes that the meritocratic conception corrects for certain morally arbitrary advantages, but still falls short of justice. For, even if you manage to bring everyone up to the same starting point, it is more or less predictable who will win the race – the fastest runners. But being a fast runner is not wholly my own doing. It is morally contingent in the same way that coming from an affluent family is contingent. “Even if it works to perfection in eliminating the influence of social contingencies,” Rawls writes, the meritocratic system “still permits the distribution of wealth and income to be determined by the natural distribution of abilities and talents.”

If Rawls is right, even a free market operating in a society with equal educational opportunities does not produce a just distribution of income and wealth. The reason: “Distributive shares are decided by the outcome of the natural lottery; and this outcome is arbitrary from a moral perspective. There is no more reason to permit the distribution of income and wealth to be settled by the distribution of natural assets than by historical and social fortune.”

Rawls concludes that the meritocratic conception of justice is flawed for the same reason (though to a lesser degree) as the libertarian conception; both base distributive shares on factors that are morally arbitrary. “Once we are troubled by the influence of either social contingencies or natural chance on the determination of the distributive shares, we are bound, on reflection, to be bothered by the influence of the other. From a moral standpoint the two seem equally arbitrary.”

Once we notice the moral arbitrariness that taints both libertarian and the meritocratic theories of justice, Rawls argues, we can’t be satisfied short of a more egalitarian conception.

[…]

[Of course, there’s a] challenging objection to Rawls’s theory of justice: What about effort? Rawls rejects the meritocratic theory of justice on the grounds that people’s natural talents are not their own doing. But what about the hard work people devote to cultivating their talents? Bill Gates worked long and hard to develop Microsoft. Michael Jordan put in endless hours honing his basketball skills. Notwithstanding their talents and gifts, don’t they deserve the rewards their efforts bring?

Rawls replies that even effort may be the product of a favorable upbringing. “Even the willingness to make an effort, to try, and so to be deserving in the ordinary sense is itself dependent upon happy family and social circumstances.” Like other factors in our success, effort is influenced by contingencies for which we can claim no credit. “It seems clear that the effort a person is willing to make is influenced by his natural abilities and skills and the alternatives open to him. The better endowed are more likely, other things equal, to strive conscientiously…”

When my students encounter Rawls’s argument about effort, many strenuously object. They argue that their achievements, including their admission to Harvard, reflect their own hard work, not morally arbitrary factors beyond their control. Many view with suspicion any theory of justice that suggests we don’t morally deserve the rewards our efforts bring.

After we debate Rawls’s claim about effort, I conduct an unscientific survey. I point out that psychologists say that birth order has an influence on effort and striving – such as the effort the students associate with getting into Harvard. The first-born reportedly have a stronger work ethic, make more money, and achieve more conventional success than their younger siblings. These studies are controversial, and I don’t know if their findings are true. But just for the fun of it, I ask my students how many are first in birth order. About 75 to 80 percent raise their hands. The result has been the same every time I have taken the poll.

No one claims that being first in birth order is one’s own doing. If something as morally arbitrary as birth order can influence our tendency to work hard and strive conscientiously, then Rawls may have a point. Even effort can’t be the basis of moral desert.

The claim that people deserve the rewards that come from effort and hard work is questionable for a further reason: although proponents of meritocracy often invoke the virtues of effort, they don’t really believe that effort alone should be the basis of income and wealth. Consider two construction workers. One is strong and brawny, and can build four walls in a day without breaking a sweat. The other is weak and scrawny, and can’t carry more than two bricks at a time. Although he works very hard, it takes him a week to do what his muscular co-worker achieves, more or less effortlessly, in a day. No defender of meritocracy would say the weak but hardworking worker deserves to be paid more, in virtue of his superior effort, than the strong one.

Or consider Michael Jordan. It’s true, he practiced hard. But some lesser basketball players practice even harder. No one would say they deserve a bigger contract than Jordan’s as a reward for all the hours they put in. So, despite the talk about effort, it’s really contribution, or achievement, that the meritocrat believes is worthy of reward. Whether or not our work ethic is our own doing, our contribution depends, at least in part, on natural talents for which we can claim no credit.

[…]

If Rawls’s argument about the moral arbitrariness of talents is right, it leads to a surprising conclusion: Distributive justice is not a matter of rewarding moral desert.

He recognizes that this conclusion is at odds with our ordinary way of thinking about justice: “There is a tendency for common sense to suppose that income and wealth, and the good things in life generally, should be distributed according to moral desert. Justice is happiness according to virtue… Now justice as fairness rejects this conception.” Rawls undermines the meritocratic view by calling into question its basic premise, namely, that once we remove social and economic barriers to success, people can be said to deserve the rewards their talents bring:

We do not deserve our place in the distribution of native endowments, any more than we deserve our initial starting point in society. That we deserve the superior character than enables us to make the effort to cultivate our abilities is also problematic; for such character depends in good part upon fortunate family and social circumstances in early life for which can claim no credit. The notion of desert does not apply here.

If distributive justice is not about rewarding moral desert, does this mean that people who work hard and play by the rules have no claim whatsoever on the rewards they get for their efforts? No, not exactly. Here Rawls makes an important but subtle distinction – between moral desert and what he calls “entitlements to legitimate expectations.” The difference is this: Unlike a desert claim, an entitlement can arise only once certain rules of the game are in place. It can’t tell us how to set up the rules in the first place.

The conflict between moral desert and entitlements underlies many of our most heated debates about justice: Some say that increasing tax rates on the wealthy deprives them of something they morally deserve; or that considering racial and ethnic diversity as a factor in college admissions deprives applicants with high SAT scores of an advantage they morally deserve. Others say no – people don’t morally deserve these advantages; we first have to decide what the rules of the game (the tax rates, the admissions criteria) should be. Only then can we say who is entitled to what.

Consider the difference between a game of chance and a game of skill. Suppose I play the state lottery. If my number comes up, I am entitled to my winnings. But I can’t say that I deserved to win, because a lottery is a game of chance. My winning or losing has nothing to do with my virtue or skill in playing the game.

Now imagine the Boston Red Sox winning the World Series. Having done so, they are entitled to the trophy. Whether or not they deserved to win would be a further question. The answer would depend on how they played the game. Did they win by a fluke (a bad call by the umpire at a decisive moment, for example) or because they actually played better than their opponents, displaying the excellences and virtues (good pitching, timely hitting, sparkling defense, etc.) that define baseball at its best?

With a game of skill, unlike a game of chance, there can be a difference between who is entitled to the winnings and who deserved to win. This is because games of skill reward the exercise and display of certain virtues.

Rawls argues that distributive justice is not about rewarding virtue or moral desert. Instead, it’s about meeting the legitimate expectations that arise once the rules of the game are in place. Once the principles of justice set the terms of social cooperation, people are entitled to the benefits they earn under the rules. But if the tax system requires them to hand over some portion of their income to help the disadvantaged, they can’t complain that this deprives them of something they morally deserve.

A just scheme, then, answers to what men are entitled to; it satisfies their legitimate expectations as founded upon social institutions. But what they are entitled to is not proportional to nor dependent upon their intrinsic worth. The principles of justice that regulate the basic structure of society… do not mention moral desert, and there is no tendency for distributive shares to correspond to it.

Rawls rejects moral desert as the basis for distributive justice on two grounds. First, as we’ve already seen, my having the talents that enable me to compete more successfully than others is not entirely my own doing. But a second contingency is equally decisive: the qualities that a society happens to value at any given time also morally arbitrary. Even if I had sole, unproblematic claim to my talents, it would still be the case that the rewards these talents reap will depend on the contingencies of supply and demand. In medieval Tuscany, fresco painters were highly valued; in twenty-first-century California, computer programmers are, and so on. Whether my skills yield a lot or a little depends on what the society happens to want. What counts as contributing depends on the qualities a given society happens to prize.

Consider these wage differentials:

• The average schoolteacher in the United States makes about $43,000 per year. David Letterman, the late-night talk show host, earns $31 million a year.

• John Roberts, chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, is paid $217,400 a year. Judge Judy, who has a reality television show, makes $25 million a year.

Are these pay differentials fair? The answer, for Rawls, would depend on whether they arose within a system of taxation and redistribution that worked to the benefit of the least well off. If so, Letterman and Judge Judy would be entitled to their earnings. But it can’t be said that Judge Judy deserves to make one hundred times more than Chief Justice Roberts, or that Letterman deserves to make seven hundred times as much as a schoolteacher. The fact that they happen to live in a society that lavishes huge sums on television stars is their good luck, not something they deserve.

The successful often overlook this contingent aspect of their success. Many of us are fortunate to possess, at least in some measure, the qualities our society happens to prize. In a capitalist society, it helps to have entrepreneurial drive. In a bureaucratic society, it helps to get on easily and smoothly with superiors. In a mass democratic society, it helps to look good on television, and to speak in short, superficial sound bites. In a litigious society, it helps to go to law school, and to have the logical and reasoning skills that will allow you to score well on the LSATs.

That our society values these things is not our doing. Suppose that we, with our talents, inhabited not a technologically advanced, highly litigious society like ours, but a hunting society, or a warrior society, or a society that conferred its highest rewards and prestige on those who displayed physical strength, or religious piety. What would become of our talents then? Clearly, they wouldn’t get us very far. And no doubt some of us would develop others. But would we be less worthy or less virtuous than we are now?

Rawls’s answer is no. We might receive less, and properly so. But while we would be entitled to less, we would be no less worthy, no less deserving than others. The same is true of those in our society who lack prestigious positions, and who possess fewer of the talents that our society happens to reward.

So, while we are entitled to the benefits that the rules of the game promise for the exercise of our talents, it is a mistake and a conceit to suppose that we deserve in the first place a society that values the qualities we have in abundance.

Woody Allen makes a similar point in his movie Stardust Memories. Allen, playing a character akin to himself, a celebrity comedian named Sandy, meets up with Jerry, a friend from his old neighborhood who is chagrined at being a taxi driver.

SANDY: So what are you doing? What are you up to?

JERRY: You know what I do? I drive a cab.

SANDY: Well, you look good. You – There’s nothing wrong with that.

JERRY: Yeah. But look at me compared to you…

SANDY: What do you want me to say? I was the kid in the neighborhood who told the jokes, right?

JERRY: Yeah.

SANDY: So, so – we, you know, we live in a – in a society that puts a big value on jokes, you know? If you think of it this way – (clearing his throat) if I had been an Apache Indian, those guys didn’t need comedians at all, right? So I’d be out of work.

JERRY: So? Oh, come on, that doesn’t help me feel any better.

The taxi driver was not moved by the comedian’s riff on the moral arbitrariness of fame and fortune. Viewing his meager lot as a matter of bad luck didn’t lessen the sting. Perhaps that’s because, in a meritocratic society, most people think that worldly success reflects what we deserve; the idea is not easy to dislodge.

It’s true that this conception of meritocracy is deeply entrenched in the popular consciousness – and considering its usefulness as an everyday heuristic, this is perfectly understandable. Despite that everyday usefulness, though, there’s no getting around the fact that, once you consider all the factors discussed above, the idea of moral desert just isn’t tenable as a foundational basis for morality. And for a lot of moral philosophies, this poses a serious theoretical problem. After all, if the whole basis of your morality fundamentally comes down to achieving justice, and your definition of justice comes down to giving people what they deserve, then how can you deal with a reality in which no one can really be said to “deserve” anything (at least not in any kind of ultimate sense)?

The system I’ve been describing here, on the other hand, provides an easy answer to this puzzle: Once again, we just cut the Gordian knot outright. We don’t try to define morality in terms of justice or desert at all, because as Rawls says, “the notion of desert does not apply here.” Instead, we define morality simply in terms of maximizing expected global utility – i.e. bringing our universe onto its best possible timeline. That doesn’t mean ignoring the idea of justice altogether, mind you; I don’t think any reasonable person would consider it a good idea to let serial killers go entirely unpunished, or to let brilliant innovators whose ideas improve countless lives go entirely unrewarded. All it means is that we recognize our practice of doling out rewards and punishments to be an instrumental means of achieving the greatest possible global good, not an end in itself. In other words, just like moral rules and moral rights, the concepts of justice and desert and merit are heuristics, not the foundational cornerstones grounding all of morality. So if someone does something we might consider praiseworthy (like coming up with a useful new invention, or treating an illness), then by all means we can and should praise and reward them, so as to encourage such behavior and incentivize others to act similarly. Paying doctors more than the average person not only makes the doctors themselves better off, it also makes society as a whole better off, by ensuring that enough people will actually be willing to put in the work to become doctors – whereas they might not be willing to do so if the salary were no higher than anyone else’s. Likewise, if someone does something we might consider particularly blameworthy (like going on a killing spree), then we can and should punish them, so as to discourage such behavior and stop them from acting similarly in the future. Making murder legal would likely result in a lot more murders; so keeping it illegal is obviously the thing that makes society as a whole better off. All in all, then, a world that operates according to principles of utility maximization will tend to produce the same results as a world that operates based on ideas of justice and desert. The point here is just that those latter considerations aren’t the goal in themselves – merely a means of getting there. We should reward and punish people not because we consider them to innately deserve it more, but simply because doing so creates the best possible world. Alexander puts it this way:

The consequentialist model of blame is very different from the deontological model. Because all actions are biologically determined, none are more or less metaphysically blameworthy than others, and none can mark anyone with the metaphysical status of “bad person” and make them “deserve” bad treatment. Consequentialists don’t on a primary level want anyone to be treated badly, full stop; thus is it written: “Saddam Hussein doesn’t deserve so much as a stubbed toe.” But if consequentialists don’t believe in punishment for its own sake, they do believe in punishment for the sake of, well, consequences. Hurting bank robbers may not be a good in and of itself, but it will prevent banks from being robbed in the future.

Of course, a lot of people believe the opposite – that hurting wrongdoers is good in and of itself, because getting justice is all that matters in the end. But that belief has been responsible for many – if not most – of the world’s worst problems. It causes people to take pleasure in others’ pain, and to feel morally vindicated when they see people suffer who they feel deserve it. And this vindictiveness doesn’t just corrode the humanity of the people indulging in it; it can also lead to deeply damaging outcomes for the rest of the world too. (Again, if you need examples here, all you have to do is think about every misguided war or feud or execution or act of violent mob justice you’ve ever heard of.)

There’s an old saying that goes, “Fiat iustitia et pereat mundus” – which roughly translates to “Let justice be done, even if the world perishes.” The appeal of this sentiment, I think, lies entirely in the fact that it sounds cool, and nothing more. As a moral proposition, it’s terrifying. We shouldn’t have to argue whether keeping the world from being destroyed is an important moral priority; it should go without saying that it’s our most important moral priority. Instead of the traditional version of this saying, then, I prefer Ludwig von Mises’s inversion: “Fiat iustitia ne pereat mundus” – which is to say, “Let justice be done, so that the world won’t perish.” Again, there’s nothing wrong with incentivizing good behavior and disincentivizing bad behavior; as a general heuristic, it makes perfect sense. But that’s only because it serves a more important purpose, which is to make life as good as possible for the inhabitants of our universe. That’s all that matters in the ultimate sense; by definition, it’s all that can matter. So when all’s said and done, everything we do ought to be aligned toward that purpose.

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