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Moral Insticts and Tradeoffs

April 17, 2013

When making moral decisions, most people first respond by thinking how does a certain act make them feel. Are they repulsed? Do they feel admiration? Do they feel bad that someone somewhere is doing the act, even if they themselves are unaffected? It is not enough merely to feel bad when thinking about an act to make it immoral. Any coherent moral philosopy must be at least slightly consequentialist, and so the feelings of disgust and disapprobation need to be weighed against any negative consequences of the act itself.

One could imagine a utilitarian sociopath who really enjoyed inflicting pain on others, but who nevertheless refrained from doing it because he estimated that net happiness was reduced by his actions. Similarly, one can imagine the opposite: someone who is personally repulsed by an act which produces much gain for others and decides to quell their own feelings for the good of society. Perhaps the best example is organ markets. Many people are repulsed by the very idea of trading human organs, but the overall utility gain from such trades are staggeringly large. The seller typically makes a fair bit of money and the buyer’s life is saved.

Moral judgements are not easy, because our world contains many tradeoffs between conflicting values:
Disgust vs. animal welfare
Existance of life vs. pleasentness of life – Is it better to have more unhappy people or fewer happy people? Is it even possible to judge the overall value of any life compared to another?
Avoidance of markets vs. Economic Efficiency
Various Environmental goals: Crop yields, land use, organic food, carbon emissions, various pollutions. For example, biofuels result in less oil drilled, but the increasing land use to grow the fuel crop might cause habitat destruction.
Stable prices or stable quanitities
Health vs. enjoyment of life – Is it better to live a short life as you want or a longer life without luxury?
Value of life vs. discomfort of agency (the trolley problem) – Is it right to do something which saves someone’s life if it causes you discomfort?
etc. etc.

Ought implies can, but at the same time, any moral philosophy inherently holds people to higher standards than anyone can reasonably actually act on. It’s more about a pattern of behavior you can aspire to. For example, a universalist utilitarian would have a hard time not concluding that donating nearly one’s entire income to the poor was not justified. However, virtually no one actually does that. Everyone wants to provide for themselves and their families first and then donates the “extra” of what they don’t feel they need. Still, everyone needs a lodestar.

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