Morality and Facts

Jean Piaget in Ann Arbor.png

Jean Piaget studied many things, including moral reasoning in children.

© Darrell Arnold Ph.D.– (Reprinted with Permission) https://darrellarnold.com/2018/02/06/process-philosophies-1/

In a standard introduction to ethical reasoning, the focus is on the varying value frameworks of different normative theories. Utilitarians focus on social utility. Kantians … focus more on individual rights or autonomy. From this foundation in conflicting value frameworks, it is often extrapolated that moral conflicts come down to value conflicts. And sometimes they do …

Nonetheless, very often conflicts about concrete issues of ethics depend not on value conflicts but on conflicting understandings of the facts. The standard debate of the Republicans versus the Democrats on minimum wage offers us one example. While many of the Democratic contenders for the 2020 election advocate a $15.00 minimum wage, neither Donald Trump nor other leading Republicans do. Value conflicts do play some role in this. Republicans much more often than Democrats will focus on the freedom of a company owner to set his own wages against a backdrop of market competition. But this view is typically considered to align with social utility, too.

So it isn’t that the Republicans emphasize the autonomy (of company owners) and the Democrats emphasize social utility. Rather, the Republicans maintain that their solutions also create the greatest social utility. Here though, they make certain assumptions about how the markets work. For example, they will often argue that the market will regulate itself. As company owners have to compete for good laborers, wages will rise. In addition, Republicans will often also argue that raising the minimum wage will hurt the macro-economy by leading to an increase in unemployment. Company owners who would like to hire more workers will be unable to if wages are higher; and indeed they may have to let some employees go if their labor costs increase.

The Democrats have fundamental differences in their generally accepted view of how the markets work on the issues discussed. First, they emphasize that markets have not traditionally led to fair and adequate wages. Second, they view the increase in minimum wages as having a long-term net positive effect on the macro-economy. Those people who now work for $8.45 or $10.00 per hour cannot get by on those wages. So the government should intervene to create social fairness. But this will not cost jobs. To the contrary, those people with the increased wages will generally spend every cent that they make because they need that money to meet their basic needs. While they now at times have to choose between paying an electric bill, getting medicine, paying rent, or other needs, they will be able to do those things more comfortably. But since they will be spending all of that money on goods and services they need, they will be spurring on economic demand, which ultimately will create jobs.

So in this debate, Republicans emphasize the short-term loss in jobs and the negative impact on the economy. But Democrats emphasize the long-term job gain because of the increase in demand that will result from more spending. The fundamental difference at play in this discussion, though, is not about values but about facts: How do the markets work? Will the market push toward an increase in wages that meets the goals of social utility on its own or must government intervene? Will the increased wages lead to increased unemployment or will it spur job growth?

We find a similar issue at work in questions about the increase in tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. In early 2019 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a junior senator from New York proposed a marginal tax rate of 70% on those earning over $10 million annually. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a tax on America’s mega-wealthy billionaires. Bernie Sanders has proposed very high estate taxes. These taxes on those in top tax brackets, they all argue, will produce needed revenue so that not only social security will not have to be cut (as some Republicans now suggest …) but so that we can afford Medicare for all, free community college and tuition debt forgiveness. [“Should We Soak The Rich? You Bet!”]

The Republicans, by contrast, argue that these taxes would lower the incentive of the wealthiest to work and to produce more wealth. It would also take money out of the hands of the wealthiest Americans and stagnate the economy. In this debate, too, sometimes a question of values does come to the fore. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to argue that company owners have a right to the money they have earned. Democrats, by contrast, will more likely dispute that in our current system the money that has been earned is rightfully all due to the company owners. The owner’s profits have been generated in part because of the labor of their employees. In many of these cases fair wages were not paid, so the company owners took home huge profits while the workers struggled.

Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have both highlighted that the Walton family … has become the wealthiest family in the world at the very time when Wal-Mart employees in some cases have needed government assistance to make ends meet, even when they work their jobs full-time. This argument clearly cuts along lines of fairness, equity, and social utility. But the point here is that at least in part Democrats and Republicans will both argue that their proposals generate the greatest utility within the macro-economy. Republicans will argue that it is better for society to allow “trickle-down” economics to kick in. Democrats deny that trickle-down economics works effectively.

Here, given that at least with a focus on social utility, the question is not one of values but is one of a proper understanding of the facts, it might seem that things should be simplified theoretically. If we don’t have a value conflict but only a conflict in the interpretation of the facts, then all we have to do is show which view is supported by facts and we should get ethical consensus. Easy peasy! However, clearly, in reality, things don’t work this way. Indeed, if the facts were clarified, then members of the respective parties would likely take recourse in values conflicts after all.

But for now, this counterfactual speculation doesn’t have to be tested since members of the two parties can now simply retreat to their own economic experts. The Republicans, along with President Trump, who recently gave a medal of freedom to Alfred Laffer, appeal to a group of economists who are still basically supportive of the supply-side economics that Laffer helped to develop.

The Democrats … rely on economists who are more Keynesian. Those Keynesian economists will emphasize that the market simply has not corrected to adjust for fair higher wages. They will also point to the extremely high marginal tax rates under the administration of FDR and in the pre-Regan period, were at times over 90%, and still resulted in strong economic growth. These higher marginal tax rates … historically did not destroy the incentives of the wealthiest to invest …

So we end up with no easily settled facts. Here, part of the problem consists in the lack of consensus within the field of economics. The dismal science, as it has long been called, has not generated a single dominant paradigm that unifies researchers in the area. So there are at least some recognized experts who support both of the alternative types of positions mentioned. In some cases, the facts just aren’t so easy to decide upon.

Yet there is a more concerning problem—namely, that even in some areas in which there is consensus, we still do not get people to [agree about the facts] … Climate science is perhaps the major area of ethical importance in which this is demonstrated. Here, as in ethical debates about economic policy, the ethical argument isn’t one of social utility against some other value—like some imagined individual rights to pollute. Both the Democrats and Republicans claim to want a policy that produces social utility. However, in this case, Republicans in the United States will not accept the authority of climate scientists but insist instead on highlighting extremely marginalized or minority voices within that debate or the voices of pundits who are not experts in the field.

The ethical dispute remains one of the facts, but in this situation, debates continue despite the fact that there is largely consensus among experts about what the facts of the matter are. The question of what non-rational factors influence our decision-making in such cases, making us impervious to the facts, is a thorny issue …

(Addendum – While I admire Professor Arnold for being fair to both sides I believe he doesn’t properly highlight the Republican’s commitment to lying. In other words, many of them know that climate change is real or higher taxes on the wealthy would be good for society. But they lie about these things either because they believe its in their own self-interest or in the interest their benefactors. For more see: “How far will Republicans go to destroy democracy? And can they still be stopped?“)

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8 thoughts on “Morality and Facts

  1. Yes, you are absolutely correct. Five billion years of earth history is absolutely meaningless compared to MY understanding of 0.00000002% of it. Well written piece but, unfortunately, highly partisan and sounds like a DNC campaign add. As to AOC’s $300 hair cut – remember Marxism is for “the people”, not the Marxist.

  2. John,

    I do think your critical comments at the end of the paper are appropriate. In part, that blog post was written to supplement my teaching, where I often try to strike a tone that is above party interests in order not to isolate conservative students. At times I am finding this a hard line to walk for my classroom work — especially in a period where we have so much disinformation spread in the Republican Party. (If anyone knows a site highlighting the difficulties of teaching critical thinking in our present period of massive disinformation, please let me know.)

    As I read this post again I’m preparing a conference paper on the effects of social bubbles on current politics. I do think such bubbles are troubling. However, there is no parity to the dangers it involves in the two major political parties in the US. The Right has created medial ecosystems in which pseudoscientific studies passed on by corporate funded groups like the Heritage Foundation are considered of equal value to serious scientific reports.

    In the 1950s advertising agencies with the support of big tobacco companies began public campaigns to sew doubt about the danger of tobacco, even as science was becoming quite settled. Similar tactics have been adopted as companies (and large donors on the Right, like the Koch brothers) have tried to create doubts about questions of gun control, universal healthcare, and climate change. I’ll soon write a blog post on this.

    This is one reason that even as of 2018 only one-quarter of Republicans think that climate change is occurring mostly because of human activity. It is also why pseudo- responses to gun violence like that I highlighted in my recent blog on Guns and God that you reposted seem legitimate to Republicans. As you may recall, the governor of Texas said “The problem is not guns, it’s hearts without God.” On issue after issue of public policy, the Republican medial ecosystem offers information meant to sew confusion about actual facts. They offer responses based on bad analysis, lies, or both.

    We are all witness to the corrosive effects this has on our society, as gun violence proliferates, we fail to deal with climate change and we remain the world’s only wealthy democracy without universal healthcare. The steady march in the Republican Party toward a world of alternative facts in fact also created the conditions under which a President as disconnected from reality as Trump could emerge as the party leader. Fox News and alternative news bubbles online helped create an environment in which Trump could lie, according to the Washington post, an average of 22 times a day, yet, as of a Pew Research Study in 2017, 71% of Republicans and those leaning Republican said they found the President “honest” and, even as late as 2019, 58% of Republicans and those leaning Republican found what he said more trustworthy than earlier presidents while 76% of those Republican leaning voters described the Trump administrations ethical standards as “excellent or good.”

    That latter Pew study, by the way, lends further support to the main point of my blog post on ethics and the facts. Both Republicans and Democrats to roughly equal degrees (90% and 91% respectively) said it was necessary for someone in high office to be honest and ethical. A critical thinker could hardly say that the differing assessment of Trump and his administration’s track record on this is up for debate. Here, Republicans show themselves willing to suspend disbelief.

    For the Pew Research, see
    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/19/how-americans-see-climate-change-in-5-charts/
    For my earlier blog post, on this site, seehttps://reasonandmeaning.com/2019/09/25/guns-and-god/
    For the now already old Washington Post story on lies as of April 2018https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/04/01/president-trump-has-made-false-or-misleading-claims-over-days/
    For Pew Studies related the perceptions of President Trump’s honesty:
    https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/01/30/partisans-agree-political-leaders-should-be-honest-and-ethical-disagree-whether-trump-fits-the-bill/

  3. “They will also point to the extremely high marginal tax rates under the administration of FDR and in the pre-Reagan period, were at times over 90%, and still resulted in strong economic growth. These higher marginal tax rates … historically did not destroy the incentives of the wealthiest to invest …”

    Reagan wasn’t even a conservative– he was a 19th century liberal. Deregulate to the maximum allowable degree and take whatever consequences ensue, was his core belief. He does get credit for helping to dissolve the Warsaw Pact, but now Russia has moved to Cold War II, and America has an unstable old fool in the Oval Office.

    “While I admire Professor Arnold for being fair to both sides I believe he doesn’t properly highlight the Republican’s commitment to lying. In other words, many of them know that climate change is real or higher taxes on the wealthy would be good for society. But they lie about these things either because they believe its in their own self-interest or in the interest their benefactors”

    Agree completely: let’s not be fair to a fault regarding the GOP.

  4. I doubt it will do much good but I’ll spend a moment of my time—which is increasingly shorter as I age—yo try to put your comment in context.

    1) The Republican tax bill will save the wealthy and corporations billions and billions and send the deficit well past a trillion.

    2) Trump and his minions are looting the treasury and enriching themselves in multiple illegal ways.

    3) The wealthiest Americans now pay a lower tax rate than anyone else. All this and more can be easily documented.

    4) If she doesn’t get a haircut her opponents will say she looks shabby. (Which they did early on.) If she gets a haircut they say she’s a hypocrite. She can’t win.

    5) A $300 haircut shouldn’t even register against the above. It’s just a way to pull the wool over your eyes about who is actually stealing your money.

    6) And if you live in a big city as I do, $300 isn’t even a particularly expensive haircut. That was her point, how high the cost of living is in DC.

    7) And she is paying for her haircut, not stealing it from the treasury.

    8) Don’t let the rich and powerful fool you. AOC is in your side not them.

    9) For more, watch any video by former secretary of labor Robert Reich

  5. This is the one comment written at R&M that I don’t understand:

    “Yes, you are absolutely correct. Five billion years of earth history is absolutely meaningless compared to MY understanding of 0.00000002% of it. Well written piece but, unfortunately, highly partisan and sounds like a DNC campaign add. As to AOC’s $300 hair cut – remember Marxism is for “the people”, not the Marxist”

    Four non sequiturs, each one of which might have been fleshed-out as a comment– but joined together are confusing. The first sentence is sarcastic.

    “Five billion years of Earth history” has nothing to do with the article.

    (Though I think the commenter is sincere re the piece being well-written.)

    “highly partisan and sounds like a DNC campaign add”

    Doesn’t matter if AOC has a $3,000 haircut– with Trump, we are in a national emergency. TPO could always visit the Limbaugh site.

  6. Trump has no shame because he has nothing to lose; worst that can happen to him is he resigns and possibly flees to an offshore island. There it would be warm during the winter, and he’ll party until he is too old to do so. Climate change wont factor in his retirement plans– he will rationalize by proclaiming how cropland will become more plentiful in colder areas.

    Trump is much craftier than he appears. His core Belief is that his dynastic ambitions are worth it all; for when he dies his descendants and trustees will carry on the name Trump. Doesn’t matter to him what anyone says as long as *Trump* is spelled correctly.

    In the context of our billionaire guttersnipe president, does it matter if AOC were to have $30,000 haircuts? While Trump is president I am not interested in criticizing Democrats in any way. After he retires to a tropical island, then criticize the Democratic party that is now keeping Vladimir Trump from shredding the Constitution.

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