On Philosophy

July 3, 2006

Another Unethical Code

Filed under: Ethics — Peter @ 1:35 am

Last time I discussed a code of action based on principles other than those that are traditionally considered “ethical”. Today I will detail another such code, this time based on principles of fairness, or balance, between individuals.

In this code there is really only one rule, an imbalance between individuals must be redressed. What is an imbalance? When one individual has taken something of value from another. What has value? Here I will say that something has value when it contributes to the wellbeing of a person. Thus someone’s happiness is something of value, as well as their heath, and indirectly their possessions (as they contribute to their happiness). When someone takes something of value they may fix the imbalance by giving something of equal or greater value to the person they took from. If the individual is unwilling to do this society will take something of equal value from them (for example their freedom by imprisoning them). If at all possible society will also attempt to return whatever was taken (for example stolen property), although some things obviously cannot be returned.

Some would call this principle one of justice. However doesn’t justice also involve treating everyone equally? Although we could make a special provision for equal treatment of all individuals I do not think such a rule is needed, and may even be detrimental. For example consider a rule such as “treat people differently only when they have given you reason to do so”. This rule is far too flexible, and allows racism and other problems, since some may consider something irrelevant about a person to be reason for treating them poorly. So then let us consider the stricter version “treat people differently only when they have given you something of value equal to the value they receive from the different treatment.” This principle seems equally undesirable, because it eliminates the possibility of charity. And yes, charity is important, because a society with a permanent underclass is not a healthy society.

However such an equality principle may not even be needed. It is true that this would allow some individuals to engage in behavior we might consider as unfair, but not the society as a whole. For example consider a restaurant that won’t serve people who are over 6 feet tall. Since there are always other restaurants people who are 6+ feet tall haven’t lost much, and so the owner of the restaurant owes them very little. However as more and more restaurants adopt this policy the cost to 6+ feet tall people increases, since they have fewer and fewer other options. Eventually restaurant owners would have to compensate them for the entire cost of not being able to eat out. This cost would be large enough that such a situation, of universally unfair treatment, would not arise, since not all restaurant owners could afford to turn them away. Thus system-wide “unfairness” is impossible, although individuals might still be able to act “unfairly”.

Some may see this principle of balance as being the same as enlightened self-interest. It is not quite identical however. It is true that in situations with complete information available to both parties self-interest will result in transactions that are perfectly balanced. However with incomplete information, as is usually the case, one side can often reasonably expect to be able to be somewhat unfair. Thus a society that is based solely on self-interest will be inefficient, since every transaction must be carefully monitored, which is not the case when people are motivated by a sense of balance.

So what society would emerge from the adoption of this principle? Economically I would suspect that it would be much the same as our own, except that there would be fewer monopolies / unfair pricing, since people would be motivated less by the collection of money and more by the need to balance their relations with others. However, unlike the principles I described last time, I do not think such a society would often engage in large scale projects (compared to last time’s society). Although you wouldn’t necessarily expect other people to cheat you or slack off you would also need to be able to suitably reward them for their efforts. This means that only those with considerable reserves of capital could begin large projects, and thus they will be much less frequent. On the other hand social and economic equality will probably be increased, which is why I say that a society operating under this principle might very well be highly successful.


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