Sunday, February 07, 2016

Behavioural Economics and Moral Philosophy

Behavioural economics and moral philosophy have a number of important connections. For example, Peter Singer's "The Life You Can Save" argues that those with the means to do so have a moral obligation to donate money to life-saving charities. He argues that charity auto-enrolment through the work-place is a legitimate way of turning this moral duty into an active choice. In the video I linked to earlier this month on the blog, Derek Parfit argues for something similar, and also argues that we should develop mechanisms to reinforce early life good intentions to donate to life-saving causes e.g. the development of informal giving clubs whereby people could monitor one another's giving through life. There are obviously many ways in which the behavioural insights and related literatures could inform the development of a culture of giving in wealthy countries. This is related to an interesting question as to moral aspects of behavioural intervention. I have previously posted a lengthy reading list on the ongoing debate about the ethics of nudging people's behaviour. This mostly relates to issues of autonomy, dignity, and respect, in the context of behavioural interventions.  A bigger question, in some respects, is what domains we should care about when thinking about influencing behaviour.  Parfit's 2011 book "On What Matters" asks fundamental questions on why we should take action in different domains, and makes the case for objective ethical grounds for interventions to improve the welfare of the destitute. It is worth debating further the circumstances under which we have a moral need to intervene in improving the welfare of individuals or groups, and how to prioritise these cases. Why should we care if somebody in a wealthy country is not saving sufficiently to smooth consumption through retirement? Similarly, does it really matter if a consumer ends up paying more for electronic products due to the contractual arrangements being confusing? Why would someone devote their life to changing these situations? I am not posing these as rhetorical questions. They are not simple questions to answer, but they are certainly worth reflecting on. Also, many behavioural interventions relate to improving future outcomes for society and particular groups. Parfit's non-identity problem and repugnant conclusion needs to be considered in these cases - by intervening we change the future groups being created.  Future generations living in a behaviourally-optimised polity would be different people to the ones that will emerge anyway, and the latter would presumably be happy to have lived even in lesser circumstances. It is even possible to think of cases where a large population living miserably is preferred to a situation where a smaller population lives quite happily. There are many answers to the repugnant conclusion, and it is worth thinking further about them in the context of large-scale societal interventions. 

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