In Search of Sustainable Values
By Ernest Partridge
Vilm Island, University of Greifswald, Germany, May 28, 1999
The economist . . . keeps the motivations of human beings pure, simple and hard-headed, and not messed up by such things as goodwill or moral sentiments... [T]here is ... something quite extraordinary in the fact that economics has in fact evolved in this way, characterizing human motivation in such spectacularly narrow terms. One reason why this is extraordinary is that economics is supposed to be concerned with real people. It is hard to believe that real people could be completely unaffected by the reach of the self-examination induced by the Socratic question, "how should one live?"
I - The Problem of "Pure Time Preference"
A six year old girl wanders from the campsite, while her parents set up camp and prepare dinner. About a hundred meters from the site, she falls through some underbrush into an abandoned mineshaft, and is killed instantly. The fact that the mine owner is criminally responsible for failing to cover the mine, is no comfort to the grief-stricken parents.
A dreadful tragedy! But I neglected to identify the date of this accident. Does it matter? Is it any less a tragedy if it happened last week? Or if it is to take place in ten years? Or one-hundred or a thousand years?
Insurance companies and tort law are required to measure the value of a human life in monetary terms. Thus, since the value of money is necessarily discounted through time, it follows that according to insurance and tort law, not to mention the presuppositions of economics-based policy analysis, at a discount rate of 5%, one child's life today is worth two in fourteen years, one hundred and thirty-one in one hundred years, and more than a thousand in two-hundred years.
Laws aside, if a mine owner could be absolutely certain that his unattended shaft would cause no injury in two-hundred years, then even a modest cost of sealing the shaft would be far greater than any imaginable discounted damage costs that might result from an open shaft after two-hundred years. After that, the "disvalue" of a child's accidental death would count, from the perspective of time present, less than a thousandth of the disvalue of that death next week.
This scenario of safe-now and hazardous in the future is more than a fanciful thought-experiment. It describes the actual conditions with ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect, and the "storage" of radioactive waste. In each of these cases, the misery and loss of life more than two-hundred years in the future "matters" less, by three orders of magnitude, than the lives and utilities of our contemporaries.
Surely something is wrong with this moral arithmetic. And yet, once we put a cash-value on human life, or any other value for that matter, and if we accept the universal economic premise that monetary value depreciates through time, then these conclusions are inescapable.
And yet, a failure to discount the future also appears to lead to absurd conclusions. For if we must share equally all non-renewable resources with all future persons, then we will each be personally entitled to less than a cup of petroleum and a lump of coal. Neither our resources nor our moral attention can or should be equally divided amongst all future persons and all future time.
Is time-discounting an unquestioned premise in economics? I once posed this question at a seminar at the University of California, Santa Barbara. A prominent environmental economist at the table replied, "of course it is, and this is simple common sense. After all," he continued, "would you rather die in twenty days or in twenty years?" I replied, "you mean, with all other things equal?"
Of course, "all other things" are not "equal" in this case. My economist colleague was not describing, as his example (i.e., "my death"), an analytically detachable event like a toothache, assignable without further entailment at two separate points along the time continuum. "My death," now rather than later, bears entailments - namely, twenty years of my life.
In fact, under close examination, it appears that it is not the passage of "pure time" itself that inclines us to discount the future; rather it is a number of contingencies that attend the passage of time that leads to the devaluation of the future. So argues Derek Parfit, and I find his case persuasive.
Parfit presents and then refutes six arguments commonly proposed in defense of discounting. They are arguments from democracy, probability, opportunity costs, "better-off" successors, excessive sacrifice, and special relations (e.g., with friends and family). To these I would add two: Psychological discounting (implicit in "the argument from democracy") and epistemic discounting (due to declining knowledge, through time, of the future).
"Psychological discounting" refers to the commonplace fact that people generally prefer earlier gratifications to later, and later pains to earlier - "all else equal." But this is a condition of human psychology, not of "pure time" itself. Moreover, far from a universal trait, exceptions to this rule are commonplace. For example, love and parental duty will dictate that a child's future education counts more than an indulgence today - quite apart from any inducements of "return on investment." And both the probability and our knowledge of future consequences can, in some noteworthy cases, be greater in the remote future than in the near future - thus reversing the usual decline of both probability and knowledge through time. Ozone depletion, global warming and the release of radwaste, noted above, are cases-in-point.
In similar manner, Parfit "disconnects" the six proposed "arguments" for discounting from pure time simpliciter. He concludes that none of these arguments succeeds:
The most that they could justify is the use of such a [discount] rate as a crude rule of thumb. But this rule would often go astray. It may often be morally permissible to be less concerned about the more remote effects of our social policies. But this would never be because these effects are more remote. . . . All these [six] different reasons need to be stated and judged separately, on their merits. If we bundle them together in a Social Discount Rate, we make ourselves morally blind.(2)
And yet, it is an indisputable fact that money depreciates through time. Thus cash-in-hand can only be saved or invested through a promise and expectation of "return on investment" or "interest income" in the future sufficient to offset the "discounted" future value of the present cash. And yet, if future values and disvalues are discounted at normal rates of cash-depreciation, it is clear that the value of the natural environment and of human life just two-hundred years hence - approximately the current span of United States history - will be insignificant from the perspective of time-present. And there is scarcely any imaginable amount of human suffering or planetary devastation a thousand years hence that can not, at normal discount rates, be justified as an acceptable cost of trivial advantages to the present generation.
If such indifference to the remote future is be avoided, then clearly our policies must be based upon values that do not share the properties of money. We must, in short, detach values from prices. This will be the primary task of the remainder of this paper.
II -- Monetized Values as a Foundation of Public Policy
Any attempt to detach values from prices will face resistance from a highly influential school of economists and from defenders of a deeply entrenched approach to policy analysis -- "cost benefit analysis.". In the United States, both have the attention and many of the votes of national and state legislators.
Consider, for example, the following suggestions that public environmental policy issues are most appropriately regarded as economic issues - i.e., that values are best regarded in terms of prices.
First, William Baxter:
All our environmental problems are, in essence, specific instances of a problem of great familiarity: how can we arrange our society so as to make the most effective use of our resources... To assert that there is ... an environmental problem is to assert, at least implicitly, that one or more resources is not being used so as to maximize human satisfactions.... Environmental problems are economic problems, and better insight can be gained by economic analysis.(3)
A. Myrick Freeman agrees:
To the economist, the environment is a scarce resource which contributes to human welfare. The economic problem of the environment is a small part of the overall economic problem: how to manage our activities so as to meet our material needs and wants in the face of scarcity... All goods that matter to individuals ... must be capable of being bought and sold in markets.(4)
Consider also the following from standard texts and respected publications in environmental economics: "the benefit of any good or service is simply its value to a consumer;"(5) "in principle, the ultimate measure of environmental quality is the value people place on these services ... or their willingness to pay;"(6) and finally, "anything that is valued instrumentally ... can in principle be handled by economics, be it acts of friendship or love."(7)
Consistent with such sentiments, President Ronald Reagan, immediately upon assuming office in 1981, issued an Executive Order requiring all federal administrative agencies and departments to justify proposed regulations with a cost-benefit analysis. Similarly, several "regulatory reform acts," also requiring federal agencies to submit to cost-benefit analyses, have recently been proposed by the U. S. Congress, only to be defeated by narrow margins.(8)
It bears repeating that as long as criteria such as these are to the foundation of public policy evaluations, the values thus monetized will be discounted through time and thus the conditions of life of remotely future persons will count for virtually nothing.
Why then is "the economic approach" to public policy (i.e., cost-benefit analysis and the monetization of values) so attractive to legislators and policy makers? There are several reasons:
It appears to be sensitive to particular and discriminable facts - namely consumer choices, market prices, etc.
It employs precise, formal modes of quantification and calculation that are public and replicable, and thus appears to be "scientific."
It claims "value neutrality" (as "a positive science") - thus, while it reports "consumer preferences" it makes no moral judgments regarding these preferences.(9)
It is "democratic," reflecting the actual (rather than the "desirable") values of the public.
It is tolerant, assuming that "each individual is the best judge of his own welfare" (Baxter).
It commensurates values in terms of a common and quantifiable denominator: cash. (Thus enabling the aforementioned advantages of quantification and formalization).
It is determinate: it arrives at unequivocal conclusions - the so-called "bottom line."
That final advantage ("the bottom line") may suggest why, at congressional hearings, economists are many and philosophers are few. The former are willing to supply answers, while the latter are disposed to raise further questions.(10)
With advantages such as these, why not base policy on economic values? As many critics have pointed out (among them such economists as Kenneth Arrow, Kenneth Boulding, Herman Daly and Amartya Sen), many of the values most cherished by cultivated human beings are either independent of, or even inversely related to, economic values. Four such categories of values immediately come to mind: those of the scholar, the citizen, the moral philosopher, and the lover.
(a) The primary value of the scholar, of course, is truth -- as supported by evidence and sound argument. An authentic scholar will say, "show me your evidence, and if it is well-founded and your argument is sound, then you will convince me." Never will he, qua scholar, say, "how much are you willing to pay to have me believe you?" Similarly, judges and juries ideally decide their verdicts on the weight of evidence. A purchased verdict is not only invalid; it is quite properly regarded as a crime. And even classical economists, when they publish their theories, offer arguments. They never solicit bids.
(b) What an individual values (as a citizen) for his community may be quite contrary to what he might value for himself as a consumer. Mark Sagoff vividly illustrates this contrast:
Last year I bribed a judge to fix a couple of traffic tickets, and was glad to do so because I saved my license. Yet, at election time, I helped to vote the corrupt judge out of office. I speed on the highway, yet I want the police to enforce laws against speeding. I used to buy mixers in returnable bottles -- but who can bother to return them? I buy only disposables now, but to soothe my conscience, I urge my state senator to outlaw one-way containers. ... I send my dues to the Sierra Club to protect areas in Alaska I shall never visit... And of course, I applaud the endangered Species Act, although I have no earthly use for the Colorado Squawfish or the Indiana bat... I have an 'ecology now' sticker on a car that drips oil everywhere it's parked.(11)
In fact, as these examples point out, a complete human being is both an individual with consumer preferences, and a citizen with loyalties and moral aspirations, which frequently over-ride the self-serving, "utility maximizing" motives of homo economicus. The consumer views the world through "the mind's I." The citizen takes "the moral point of view," perceiving oneself as an equal member among many in a community. "The governing impulse of the consumer is "I want." The governing impulse of the citizen is "we need." (Consumer or Citizen).
(c) Distributive justice. As economists and utilitarian philosophers have long acknowledged, "economic efficiency" and "utility maximization" do not, by themselves, touch upon the essential moral issue of justice. Economic theory is silent on the question of whether the wealth of the cooperative enterprise which is society, goes to those who most deserve it. "Just desert" is a moral, not an economic, concept. Pareto optimality is the economist's term for that condition in society of "perfect efficiency" whereby there are no further transactions that can benefit anyone without making another individual worse off. It is noteworthy that "Pareto optimality" can describe a slave economy. For while justice demands the emancipation of the slaves, this can not be accomplished without making the slave owners "worse off."
(d) Love, friendship and loyalty that is bought is less valuable than that which is given freely. Economists enjoy telling the tale of new member of the Economics Department encountering a colleague in the Quad. "How do you like it here?" asks the veteran. "OK, I guess," replies the newcomer, "intelligent students, good research facilities -- trouble is, I don't seem to have many friends." His colleague suggests, "well, if you value friendship that much, why not buy a friend?" Elaboration is clearly superfluous.
As for love, Mark Sagoff makes the point with characteristic wit and eloquence: "A civilized person might climb the highest mountain, swim the deepest river, or cross the hottest desert for love, sweet love. He might do anything, indeed, except be willing to pay for it."(12)
(e) Finally, the market place can obscure Adam Smith's essential distinction between "values in use" and "values in exchange." "The things that have the greatest value in use," he writes, "have frequently little or no value in exchange; and on the contrary, those which have the greatest value in exchange have frequently little or no value is use."(13) As examples, Smith cites diamonds, which have little value in use but great value in exchange, and water which has effectively infinite value in use (we can not survive without it), but very little cost (exchange value). Significantly, "environmental values" such as clean air and water tend to be "values in use," and thus greatly undervalued in markets.
Classical economists are quite correct when they state that theirs is a "positive discipline" that attempts to report values, rather than prescribe values - and only a limited realm of values at that. For while they might tell us what is valued by an amalgamated "consuming public," they can not tell us what is valuable. But the latter question, "what is valuable," is of most basic and urgent concern to the policy-maker, the legislator and the citizen. Ask an uncritical economist, "what is the value of X?" and he will likely ask in reply, "what are you (or "the market") willing to pay for X?" The astute citizen, asked such a question, will reply: "What am I willing to pay? Before I can answer that, I must first assess the value of X?" And that "value" will, of necessity, be normative, not economic. And if this value is environmental - for example, the value of clean air, access to wilderness, biodiversity, and the availability of these amenities into the remote future - or political – the rights of life, liberty, property, free speech, free association, free exercise of religion, etc. -- then the most appropriate means of assessing that value just might be, not an assessment of the marginal price in a "free market" to self-interested, utility-maximizing individuals (“how much are you willing to pay”), but rather a consensus through evaluation in a forum of informed and deliberating citizens or their elected representatives.
III - Prices and Values - Analysis and Contrast
The foregoing has suggested that economic values do not fully account for all values, or even those values most cherished by cultivated human beings. But while we may have indicated that (economic) prices are distinct from (moral) values, we have yet to offer an account as to why and how they are distinct. That will be the task of this section. If successful, we may be able to identify "sustainable values" - values sufficiently detached from "time-binding" monetization to escape discounting and thus to apply to all future generations.
I have identified twelve paired contrasts between prices and values, some of which we have already encountered. Space constraints allow only a brief account of six of these. However the remaining six are of sufficient importance to require a more circumspect analysis.
Here, all at once, is the list of contrasts:
Commensurable (Cardinal Ordering)
Society as a ("Perfect") Marketplace
Agent ("egocentric") Point of View
Organic, Holistic, Contextual
"Persons" (moral agents)
Society as a Community
Spectator (Moral) Point of View
Second Order Evaluation
Descriptive/Normative: Here we concede what the economist proclaims: his discipline is rigorously descriptive. He passes no moral judgment on what the individual consumer (or the collective market) values - as determined by "willingness to pay," and as reflected in prices. (However, as we shall see, the neo-classical economist presupposes a heavy burden of highly controversial "metaethical" theory -- most notably, that of "preference utilitarianism"). But a rigorously descriptive approach to values does not, because it can not, banish normative concerns from policy decisions. Policy-making, as an informed and forced choice among alternative futures which will variously affect the welfare and rights of morally considerable individuals, is necessarily a morally significant enterprise. Recall our contrast between the economist and the citizen: ask the former, "what is the value of X?" and he will likely ask in reply, "what are you (or "the market") willing to pay for X?" To this, the astute citizen will reply: "What am I willing to pay? Before I can answer that, I must first assess the value of X?" As the ever-astute Amartya Sen puts it, "desiring is at best a consequence of valuation.."(14)
Monetary/Non-Monetary. As noted above, the fundamental human values of truth, justice and love are not "captured" by economic analysis. These are unquestionably "non-monetary values."
Commensurable/Non-Commensurable. The myriad indexes (e.g., Gross Domestic Product, Cost of Living, etc.), formal concepts (e.g., indifference curves, marginal values), and the virtuoso mathematical skills of the economists are all made possible by their quantification of economic data, and their commensuration of this data ("prices") in terms of the single metric of cash-value. Given the assumption that "all goods that matter to individuals (that is, all goods over which individuals have preference orderings) must be capable of being bought and sold in markets,"(15) cash then becomes the "common coin," the cardinal measure, through which economic values are rendered fungible, transitive and determinate. In contrast, for non-economic normative values, there is no comparable metric. This does not mean, of course, that it is impossible to make choices among competing normative values. In fact, such choices are both unavoidable and even commonplace in practical life and public policy, and the problem of prioritizing competing values is one of the most troublesome issues of applied ethics. In such cases, however, competing values are ranked ordinally and moral decisions made in context. Lacking a "bottom line" of prices, one is left with moral deliberation and "the moral sense."
Reductive-Aggregative/Organic-Holistic-Contextual. In microeconomic analysis, the focus of attention is upon the preference-map of the individual - upon his degree of willingness to buy or sell, thus maximizing his self-interested "utility." Society - or better, "the economy" - is thus regarded as an aggregate of individual preferences by these "utility maximizers."(16) The "best result" for all is a summation of the best result for each, aiming toward "Pareto optimaliity," wherein no further exchange is possible without making someone "worse off" (according to one's personal assessment of his preferences). In contrast, the normative approach recognizes human communities as organic wholes, with "emergent properties" that are more than the sum of the utility exchanges of the component individual. The normative perspective takes more seriously such game-theoretical paradoxes as the Prisoner's Dilemma and the Tragedy of the Commons, whereby the self-interested pursuit of maximum utility by each agent proves to be self-defeating. Non-economic value perspectives are more sensitive to "the moral paradox:" an appreciation that the most effective means to maximize one's satisfactions in life is not to seek to maximize one's satisfactions. (More about this below).
Relativistic-Conservative/Objective-Reformative. Economic analysis describes values as they are - i.e., as reflected in the "willingness to pay" of consumers, as reflected in market prices. Implicit in this analysis is that the consumer "is the best judge of his own welfare" (Baxter). Thus there is no criterion of value outside the individual (relativism), and furthermore no advocacy from this point of view for an alternative set of values (conservatism). "The desirable is that which is desired." In contrast, the normative approach is usually equipped with reasons and arguments in support of its claims (objective), and insists that the values it defends are not fully realized in personal lives or in social conditions as we find them. It makes perfect sense, from the normative perspective, to argue that consumer desires are not desirable, or that preferences are not "really" preferable, and he is prepared to present a reasoned argument in defense of his moral claims.
Teleological (Utilitarian)/Possibly Deontological. The classical economic approach to values is thoroughly teleological, embracing (usually uncritically) the ethical theory of preference utilitarianism.(17) This is a "consequentialist" theory, which holds that the value of an act or policy is to be determined by the results thereof, and that the "right" course of action is that which maximizes "the good" (in this case, aggregated human want-satisfaction). In contrast, normative values may be defended by "deontological" theories, which hold that a course of action which maximizes the good might, nevertheless not be the morally "right" thing to do.(18) Thus, for example, John Rawls, in his deontological Theory of Justice, contends that "each person possesses an inviolability founded on justice that even the welfare of society as a whole cannot override. For this reason justice denies that the loss of freedom for some is made right by a greater good shared by others."(19)
With its thoroughgoing teleological approach, mainstream economics is notoriously silent on the issue of distributive justice - on the question, for example, of which of the innumerable "Pareto optimal" distributions of wealth are more or less "just." And as Sen observes, the concept of "rights" is very problematic for traditional economists. In fact, he writes, "it is fair to say that the view that rights cannot be intrinsically important is fairly ingrained in the economic tradition now established."(20) Still worse, "the moral acceptance of rights ... may call for systematic departures from self-interested behavior. Even a partial and limited move in that direction in actual conduct can shake the behavioral foundations of standard economic theory."(21)
The normative view departs most radically from the economic in its analysis of human motivation, and of the methodology and perspective of human evaluation. The difference is no less than the absence in the economic view, and the centrality in the normative view, of moral agency. The difference between "economic man" on the one hand, and "the moral agent" on the other hand, is so fundamental that an understanding of the distinction between "prices" and "values" is impossible without an account of just what it is that make most human beings morally accountable for their value choices, both as individuals and as citizens. Five of the remaining six contrasting pairs will deal with moral agency. The final pair will summarize our argument.
"Economic Man"/The Moral Agent. "Economic man" is, to borrow Herbert Marcuse's term, "one-dimensional." As noted above, he is a self-interested utility maximizer - with "utility" defined (variously) as "want-" or "preference-satisfaction," manifested as willingness to pay in a free market. In established economic discourse, this behavior is described as "rational."(22) This is, as Sen observes, an account of human motivation that is "pure, simple and hard-headed, and not messed up with such things as goodwill or moral sentiments."(23) It is only fair to note that Sen is among the economists who reject this account of human nature.
The object is to understand, explain and predict human behaviour in a way such that economic relationships can be fruitfully studied and used for description, prognosis and policy. The jettisoning of all motivations and valuations other than the extremely narrow one of self-interest is hard to justify on grounds of predictive usefulness, and it also seems to have rather dubious empirical support. To stick to that narrow path does not seem a very good way of going about our business.(24)
Fortunately for the rest of us who live in human communities, "economic man" does not exist. We should not want him as a neighbor.
In contrast, "the moral agent" - that individual whom we can properly praise or blame morally for his or her conduct - is multidimensional. While the list of criteria that identify moral agency is in some dispute, most moral philosophers would include most, it not all, of the following characteristics in that list.(25) The first five, which apply also to "economic man," are necessary though not sufficient for moral agency:
sentience, or the ability to feel pain (also applies to "moral patients" as noted below)
consciousness of external objects and events.
reasoning, the ability to solve problems.
the capacity to communicate through the use of a complete, syntactic system of significant symbols (i.e., a language).
In addition, the following capacities (each grounded in the use of articulate language) are essential to the acquisition of moral agency:
a concept of oneself as a being continuing through time.
a capacity to conceptualize and choose among alternative futures.
a capacity to act on principle -- to deliberately govern one's behavior according to rules.
recognition of the personhood of other persons.
This final capacity, the recognition of the personhood of others, is the source of "the moral sentiments" of benevolence and sympathy -- the foundation of morality, according to David Hume and (as many economists neglect to notice) his friend, Adam Smith.
The reason that this definition is crucial to moral philosophy is that only such a being as that described above can be said to be "morally responsible" or "duty-bound" (as, for example, infants and animals are not).(26) But while only such "moral agents" can meaningfully be said to be "duty-bound," a larger set of individuals such as animals and very young humans may be said to have rights (so-called "moral patients").
Essential to moral agency are the capacities to be both hypothetical spectators of oneself among others ("the moral point of view") and to be a critic and judge of one's own desires. We will have much more to say about each of these capacities below.
Society as a Market Place / Society as a Community. Strictly speaking, the "marketplace" need have no "place" at all. Though traditionally "placed" at a specific location (e.g., at an Arabic souk or on Wall Street), now, thanks to electronic communication, a market need not be placed anywhere in particular (e.g., the NASDAQ "market"). All that is required is some means by which buyers can communicate with sellers and agree to transactions. It is the conditions of that exchange that defines the "perfect markets" of formal economic theory. These conditions require that the participants be completely informed and numerous (virtually infinite), and that the transactions be voluntary, mutually beneficial ("Pareto improvements"), open and independent (without collusion), and finally that these exchanges involve no transaction costs or externalities. Strangely, the same economic theories that eschew moral value judgments, require, in their "perfect markets," that the participants be both trusting and trustworthy. It is immediately obvious that there is no such thing as a "perfect market" in "the real world." (The New Alchemy)
To call such aggregate transactions of self-serving utility-maximizing individuals a "society" may in fact be a misnomer. Some political leaders distrustful of "big government" and enamored of "the wisdom of the free market" seem to agree. Consider, for example, Margaret Thatcher's observation that strictly speaking "there is no such thing as society, there are individual men and women and there are families."(27) But if, as this former Prime Minister proclaims, "there is no such thing as society," one wonders what Lord Nelson was talking about when he said to the fleet before the Battle of Trafalgar, "England expects each man to do his duty?" And for what did the "few" airmen in the Battle of Britain, for whom so many owed so much, fight and die? Surely not for a marketplace!
The moral agent has a ready answer to these questions: these warriors, along with saints and heroes throughout history, sacrificed their lives for their communities. Successful "communities," unlike markets, are what John Rawls calls "well-ordered societies," where individuals are joined in "civic friendship" by tacit mutual agreements to respect the rights and integrity of each other. Communities are typically bound by shared religious or moral beliefs, and by political compacts (such as the United States Constitution) which embody common values and objectives. Life in flourishing communities nurtures such civic sentiments as pride, loyalty, compassion, and allegiance - "other-directed" sentiments that stand in stark contrast to the "self-interested" motivations of the economic agent. (On Civic Friendship)
Egocentric Point of View / Spectator (Moral) Point of View. "Economic man" sees the world through "the mind's I." He perceives himself as surrounded by opportunities to exchange goods, services and cash, all to be utilized toward end of satisfying his needs and maximizing his utility. The interests of "others" is of no concern for, it is assumed, they will be "taken care of" through the benevolence of the "invisible hand" of the free market. Just as the conscious center of "economic man's" universe is ego, the central time-locus thereof is now. From this perspective, the value of all future events and interests degrade with time; i.e, the future is "discounted."
The perspective of the moral agent is fundamentally different. Born into the society of fellow humans, and acquiring the use of language and abstract thought thereby, socialized individuals achieve self-consciousness and thus learn both to treat themselves as an objects of their own reflection and to recognize in others the cares, aspirations and values that are central to their own existence.(28) Then, through the Humean "natural sentiments" of benevolence and sympathy, the well-being of the others becomes a self-transcending good-for-themselves, dissolving the ego-boundary of self-interest.
By assuming the equal (Kant would say the "infinite") value of all agents, the individual as moral agent is forbidden to allow himself advantage in moral deliberation. By regarding himself as equally (but no more) entitled to rights and equally burdened by duties, the moral agent becomes a spectator of himself among others as he plays his role upon the stage of interpersonal and intertemporal interaction with other agents.
It is from the "the moral point of view"(29) that game-theoretical problems such as "the prisoner's dilemma" and "the tragedy of the commons" find their solution, while the same problems are completely intractable from the perspective of the self-serving individual of classical economic theory. From this common realization, achieved from millennia of historical experience, has emerged communities and governments. This realization and experience is reflected in the political philosophy that has dominated Western thought from the time of Aristotle, through Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau and Kant, to John Rawls, and which finds expression in such documents as the Magna Carta, The Declaration of Independence, and The Universal Declaration of Human Rights. It is thus quite remarkable that the rival "social atomism" of classical economic theory has become the political ideology of the "establishment" of our time.
First-Order Motivation / Second Order Evaluation. Mainstream economists proudly proclaim that their methodology is "value neutral." To "economic man," all desires and preferences are created equal. The terrorist's purchase of a thousand dollars of explosives and the humanitarian donation of a thousand dollars for Kosovo relief, are counted equally in the economic metric of cash. Neither is there a distinction to be found in economic analysis between the addict's "consumer preference" for a bag of heroin, or the reformed addict's "consumer preference" for addiction therapy. There are no distinctions drawn between virtuous and selfish motives. Desires are interpreted as "willingness to pay," which are all measured by the common denominator of cash.
In contrast, from the point of view of the moral evaluator, there is a crucial ordering of one's desires. As we all know, humans have a myriad of desires regarding food, sex, prestige, power, and wealth. The comparative strength of these desires can be measured by the agent's willingness to pay for their satisfaction. However, one might also have desires regarding desires - indeed one must have these if one is to have a conscience. It is through the awareness and activity of these "second order desires" that morality enters the stage of personal and social human behavior.
In a significant and influential paper, philosopher Harry Frankfort(30) gives a vivid account of how the two orders of desire are both distinct and conjoined. The basic concept is clear and accessible even to a child: to take a familiar example, the reformed alcoholic both "desires" a drink and "desires" to remain sober. The object of the latter desire (for sobriety) is the former: his "desire" for sobriety is as that his "desire" to have a drink be frustrated. In ordinary language, this dissonance between second and first-order desires is called "moral temptation." Frankfort uses the term "wanton" to describe individuals who lack second order desires. "Economic man" is a wanton.
In an refinement of Frankfort's moral psychology, Gary Watson(31) recognizes the "second order" as "the valuational system" which passes judgment upon the "prudence" and "worthiness" of one's primary desires. "The valuational system of an agent," writes Watson, "is that set of considerations which, when combined with his factual beliefs (and probability estimates) yields judgments of the form: '[this is] the thing for me to do in these circumstances, all things considered.'"(32)
As this analysis of moral psychology clearly indicates, the capacity for moral judgment is founded upon the use of syntactic language. From language, we learn to abstract concepts and to combine them into rules. Language permits us to "fund" knowledge from the past (both from our own lives, and from the lives of all who have left us a written or oral record), and to anticipate and hypothesize alternative futures before committing ourselves to one or another of them. Furthermore, through language we acquire the aforementioned capacities to conceive of ourselves as beings continuing through time, in the company of similar beings deserving respect and with rights-claims upon us. Finally, through these concepts of oneself and other selves, we might, in our contemplation, be "moral spectators" of ourselves in our interactions with others. In short, language allows us to "step aside" from the immediacy of events and desires, whereby we might, with cool reflection, establish a "rational life plan" through an ordering of our means with our ends, and by establishing rules of conduct toward our fellow agents. (For a further elaboration and defense of this position, see my "How is Morality Possible?", this site).
If we are successful in the second-order evaluation and control of our first-order desires, we will earn the moral satisfaction of self-respect, just as others whose "valuational system" rules their "motivational system" deserve our moral admiration.
Non-Moral Values / Moral Values. Having identified the capacities of "moral agency" (or "personhood"), we are prepared to define "moral value." These are values that reflect the worth of persons. Moral "worthiness" is manifested in the virtues, which include honesty, fidelity, courage, compassion, temperance, etc. Moral "unworthiness" is displayed in the vices which traditionally include pride, gluttony, lust, avarice, sloth, etc.. It is noteworthy that the vices generally betray a failure of "second-order" control over first-order desires and impulses.
The term "non-moral value" applies to anything else that might be "graded" (termed good or bad), including beauty (of art objects or natural landscapes), function (of machines), viability (of organisms), stability (of societies or ecosystems), enjoyments (of experiences) - and prices (of commodities and services). Thus, while we speak of "good" automobiles, we never regard them as "virtuous." And while locusts who devour our crops are (from our point of view) "bad," it would be inappropriate to condemn them as "wicked," for they are not moral agents.
Our response to moral agency, in ourselves and others, gives rise to the moral sentiments. Satisfaction with our own worth evokes the sentiment of self-respect; lack of such satisfaction causes guilt. Concern about other's opinions of our worth leads to feelings of shame. Similarly, positive or negative evaluations of the worth of other persons evokes sentiments, respectively, of admiration or contempt.
Price, especially as it is treated by economists, is a paradigmatically "non-moral value." The personal "worth" of the buyers and sellers in the market are of no concern to the economist. While the economist wishes to know what is "desired," he does not ask whether that which is "desired" is, in fact, desirable. Economic analysis, observes Mark Sagoff, "treats people as of equal worth because it treats them as of no worth, but only as places or channels at which willingness to pay is found." (For an eloquent statement of the amorality of economic "values" see the quotation from Robert F. Kennedy in the Appendix to this paper).
On a planet teeming with life but without moral agents, there may be non-moral goods and bads. But there will be no right and wrong, no virtue or vice, and no justice or injustice. Neither will such moral values as virtue or justice be found in a society of individuals whose motives are confined to self-interested utility, with all values reduced to market prices. Indeed, it is doubtful that such a "society," lacking the adhesive of common loyalties, could exist at all. Tragically, we Americans may well prove this to be so, if the program of right-wing libertarianism prevails.
Discounted Future / Time Neutrality. If the foregoing analysis has been successful, we have distinguished personal value ("virtue") and social value ("justice"), from economic value or "price." Furthermore, we have demonstrated that prices alone are insufficient measures of the worth of persons and communities, and thus of public policies regarding persons and communities. For all the advantages of facility, objectivity, and clarity that are obtained through economic analysis of social phenomena and public policy, it is a serious error to believe that these advantages are enough. To reduce human beings to self-interested utility-maximizers, and their values to a "willingness to pay" is to engage in an analytical amputation of all that makes us admirable - our aspirations, our accomplishments, and our virtues. Unlike prices, these values, apprehended from the timeless "moral point of view," do not diminish through time.
Accordingly, the unfortunate girl in our opening example was not a bundle of preferences, she was a person. Because our perspective upon her hypothetical misfortune is from "the moral point of view," it is timeless. If the motive (and the law) to render the mineshaft safe is morally defensible, it constitutes a second-order "trumping" of the mine owner's economic motive to reduce operating expenses in order to maximize profits. His moral obligation to render his property safe for all future time prevails, regardless of how little that future might "count" when discounted in terms of cash-values.
Fairness requires that we anticipate a rebuttal by the economist: "We never meant to suggest," he might reply, "that homo economicus describes all dimensions of human existence, and thus we do not contend that prices are the only values. While agreeing with all the distinctions that you present above, we would only insist that economic motives and values happen to be the subject-matter of our discipline. In some conditions of ordinary life, and even of public life, human beings, both individually and collectively, act upon economic motives. When they do, the concepts and methods of economics might prove to be illuminating."
Fair enough! We have little quarrel with economists who thus qualify and confine the application of their methodology and concepts. Unfortunately, such commendable modesty is not universal. Moreover, these wise qualifications are more likely to be found among scholars, especially as they write papers for, and discuss public issues with, their colleagues. Our quarrel is with policy-makers, popular writers, legislators, and politicians, such as Lady Thatcher, who believe that "there is no society" apart from individuals and families, and who trust the mysterious and "invisible" hand of the free-market to provide the best solutions to all social problems. Our quarrel extends to scholars who, in their public pronouncements, choose to shed their scholarly reserve as they proclaim that economic values are the only values of relevant interest in state policy: individuals such as Milton Friedman who asserts without qualification that "there is nothing wrong with the United States that a dose of smaller and less intrusive government would not cure."(33) Finally, our criticism is directed at those who believe that all provision for the remote future should be interpreted through the lens of economic analysis -- meaning, of course, that the future should be discounted. It has been almost twenty years since Ronald Reagan, in his first inaugural address, proclaimed that "government is not the solution, it is the problem." Even a superficial survey of the public opinion and debate on public policy will reveal that "the wisdom of the free market" and "the evils of 'big government,'" have generally moved out of arena of serious dispute and into the background of unexamined presupposition.
IV - Policy Implications
With the contrasting analyses of prices and values, and the resulting conclusion that not all values (in particular moral values) should be time-discounted, we have completed the essential task of this paper. Even so, two challenges deserve response.
The first challenge appeared at the opening of this paper: "If we must share equally all non-renewable resources with all future persons, then we will each be personally entitled to less than a cup of petroleum and a lump of coal. Neither our resources nor our moral attention can or should be equally divided amongst all future persons and all future time."
The reply is straightforward, if somewhat paradoxical: An even sharing of resources and moral attention with all future persons will not serve those future persons, and of course will devastate the present generation. Reducing the allotment of fossil fuels to the paradigmatic lump of coal and cup of oil renders these resources useless to all. Similarly, if we apportion a major share of our attention to the remote future, our neglect of our own business will severely degrade the value of our institutional legacy to the future. We owe it to the future to maintain, and yes to enjoy, a thriving civilization in our time so that we might pass on an enduring and valuable legacy to the future. And as for exhaustible energy resources, we are entitled to use them provided we treat them as "bridge resources" - i.e., that we invest part of the advantage gained thereby to the task of securing alternative energy sources when the earth's fossil fuel account is finally depleted. Future generations are not necessarily entitled to coal and oil, per se, but to what these fuels provide, namely abundant energy.
The second challenge is posed by the economists, Herman Leonard and Richard Zeckhauser:
We have defended cost-benefit analysis as the most practical of ethically defensible methods and the most ethical of practically usable methods for conducting public decision-making. It cannot substitute for - nor can it adequately encompass, analyze or consider - the sensitive application of social values. Thus it cannot be made the final arbiter of public decisions. But it does add a useful structure to public debate, and it does enable us to quantify some of the quantifiable aspects of public decisions. Our defense parallels Winston Churchill's argument for democracy: it is not perfect, but it is better than the alternatives.(34)
With due appreciation for these economists' acknowledgment of the limitations of cost-benefit analysis (including, by implication, future discounting), we close with a suggestion that there may be a "better alternative" method than cost-benefit analysis for formulating public policy, and in particular policy regarding remotely future generations.
As a summarizing theme for our alternative policy guidelines, we propose a rule taught to all Boy Scouts: "Leave the campsite as good or better than you found it." Political philosophers and political economists will recognize this rule as a homespun application of "the Lockean Proviso:" "Take what you need from nature, and leave as much and as good for your successors." We will return to this proviso shortly.(35)
In his monumental contribution to moral philosophy, A Theory of Justice, John Rawls offers a helpful set of policy guidelines to ensure "justice between generations." "Just savings," he writes, entails that "each generation must . . . preserve the gains of culture and civilization, . . . maintain intact those just institutions that have been established . ..[and] put aside in each period of time a suitable amount of real capital accumulation."(36) By "capital," Rawls means "not only factories and machines, and so on, but also the knowledge and culture, as well as the techniques and skills, that make possible just institutions and the fair values of liberty."(37) This is an important qualification, since it indicates that our "savings" are not simply of "consumables" which are forgone today to be "used" tomorrow. For unlike depletable resources, the intellectual and cultural "capital" to which Rawls refers become more valuable to the future, the more they are used with advantage by the present generation.
This is a good beginning, but only that. In the first place, the terms "savings" and "capital" suggest that the problem of justice between generations is primarily, if not exclusively, an economic issue. Secondly, our duties may be more of a negative kind ("forebearances") than positive (active commissions). Finally, Rawls has little to say about our ecological responsibilities as stewards of the planet and its life community. Let's examine some of these additional dimensions of just provision for the future.(38)
(a) We should favor policies that mitigate evil over policies that promote good. This precept, modeled after the so-called "principle of negative utility," is supported by several common-sense considerations. First of all, avoidable or treatable pain demands the moral attention of everyone, while "the pursuit of happiness" is a private matter. Moreover, it is much easier to identify and address the causes of misery, than to promote the wellsprings of happiness. This is especially so with regard to the future. Their pains and ours can be traced to our common somatic needs and the status of the planetary ecosystem which sustains us both. Their pleasures and satisfactions will come from developments in culture, taste and technology that we cannot even imagine.
(b) "Savings," "Capital" and the Critical Lockean Proviso. Here we elaborate on an earlier suggestion. John Locke stated that it was morally permissible to "take from nature," mix one's labor with the taking, and claim the result as one's property, so long as one leaves "as much and as good" for others. "(The Lockean Proviso"). While this may have been true in a world of frontiers and homesteads, it is no longer, strictly speaking, possible. Recall that if we were to share equally our petroleum resources with all, far into the future, we would be allocated a cupful each. So we must, instead, adopt a "Critical Lockean Proviso," whereby we leave for the future, not the very resource that we deplete, but the opportunity to obtain whatever the resource is used for. Thus while future generations may not need petroleum per se, they will need what petroleum provides, namely energy. Our responsibility, then, will be to find a replacement.
The proviso also entails that we utilize recycling technologies and "interest-bearing" (i.e., renewable) resources. And this, in turn, validates the need to preserve natural ecosystems, which are more valuable to us and the future than we can ever fully discover, or even imagine.
Most fundamentally, we must preserve the options! And this means the institutions that find and develop the options: scientific education and research. Of course, to return to an earlier point, the support of scientific research and development benefits our generation while it benefits the future.
(c) Just Anticipations. Our duties to the future must include technological and environmental impact studies which seek to assess the consequences of projects and policies several hundred years into the future. To be sure, such studies exact costs, in research and manpower, and in the delay and even the cancellation of projects that are beneficial in the short term. The duty of just anticipation, then, entails a responsibility to foresee, and to expand the capacity to foresee, developing crises, and furthermore to enact appropriate remedies for the sake of future persons while the time is available to act effectively. Obvious examples of such a duty would include studies of stratospheric ozone depletion, global warming, and nuclear waste disposal.
(d) Just Forebearances. This dimension of the duty to posterity clearly follows from the previous: for once we have determined, through scientific research, how our actions might affect the remote future, we may face a clear duty to forgo advantages now for the sake of future generations. To cite our examples once again, studies of atmospheric physics and chemistry may determine that we face a choice between having our grandchildren protected from ultra-violet radiation or having our generation enjoy the convenience of aerosol sprays and supersonic aircraft. Similarly, due to the so-called "greenhouse effect, our voracious appetite for fossil fuel energy may be inconsistent with a tolerable climate for our successors. Accordingly, decision to favor future generations would, in these instances, require forbearances on the part of those now living.
(f) Just Stewardship. Whatever else they may need in terms of just institutions, knowledge, skills, resources and capital, future generations will need air, water, food and a viable gene pool. To have these essentials, they will need that which has capably, reliably and continuously provided up to our present generation; namely, a functioning ecosystem. For posterity to have it, this ecosystem will have had to have been further preserved, maintained, even cherished through the continuing observance, by intervening generation, of just stewardship of the planetary life-support system.
The economic approach to policy is objective, quantifiable, formal and determinate, and thus very attractive to policy-makers. But in the final analysis it is, by itself, inadequate to the task of determining and carrying out our moral responsibilities to the future. One of the primary proclaimed "strengths" of the economic approach - "value neutrality" - turns out to be its fatal flaw. "Public policy" is a deliberate attempt to make an optimal choice among alternative futures, each of which will variably affect the rights and welfare of future persons. As such, policy-making is fundamentally a morally significant enterprise. Thus any "value neutral method" such as economic analysis, however useful as an ingredient to policy-analysis, must fail as a sufficient determiner of public policy. To the policy-maker, the economist's methodology of pricing and its entailed discounting of the future, while an invaluable servant, can be a cruel master.
Copyright 1999 by Ernest Partridge
The following remarks were made by Robert F. Kennedy, at the opening of his ill-fated campaign of 1968. They eloquently summarize the inadequacy of economic criteria in assessing and validating public policy.
Too much and for too long we seem to have surrendered personal excellence and community values for the mere accumulation of material things. The Gross National Product is now over 800 billion dollars a year. But that Gross National Product, if we judge the United States by that, counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for the people who break them. It counts the destruction of the redwoods and the loss of our natural wonders in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and nuclear warheads and armored cars for the police to fight the riots in our cities. It counts [the killer's] rifle and [the rapist's] knife and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children.* Yet the Gross National Product does not [include] the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, our wisdom nor our learning, neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America, except why we are proud that we are Americans.
Robert F. Kennedy
Iowa State University, 1968
(Transcription from RFK's voice,
broadcast on National Public Radio)
NOTES AND REFERENCES
When the U.S. Congress drafted the environmental legislation of the early 1970s, [environmental] problems were thought to be so obvious and so serious ... that members simply could not envision directing EPA to address them only if it was affordable to do so. As a consequence, most of the early laws effectively directed the agency's administrator to disregard cost altogether in setting ambient air quality standards and some water quality standards...
Paul R. Portney, "Counting the Cost: The Growing Role of Economics in Environmental Decision Making," Environment, 40:2 (March, 1998), p. 15.
9. "The approach of the economist is amoral [that is] economists cannot say what is 'just' or 'fair.' Richard B. McKenzie and Gordon tullock, The New World of Economics, Homewood, IL: Richard D. Irwin, 1978, p.7.
"We do not have any [means] of resolving ethical disagreements, they are ultimately judgments of value ... and cannot finally be proved or disproved." Paul Heyne and Thomas Johnson, Toward Economic Understanding, Chicago: Science research Associates, 1976, p 767.
10. "'The economic approach' is sensitive to particular facts, it is specific, and it suggests a method for resolving questions of trade-offs between competing and valued ends. [It] ... seems 'practical,' 'hardnosed,' and 'realistic,' and its use of precise, formal modes of quantification and calculation is alluring." Donald VanDeVeer and Christine Pierce, "Letting the Market Decide," Environmental Ethics and Policy Book, Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1994, p. 296.
16. "The most widely accepted [economic policy] criterion asks whether the aggregate of the gains to those made better off measured in money terms is greater than the money value of the losses of those made worse off. If the gains exceed the losses, the policy is accepted by this criterion. The gains and losses are to be measured in terms of each individual's willingness to receive the gains or to prevent the policy-imposed losses..." A. Myrick Freeman III, "The Ethical Basis of the Economic View of the Environment," Center for the Study of Values and Social Policy, University of Colorado at Boulder, 1983.
17. Unlike classical utilitarians, most "mainstream economists" prefer not to delve into the psychology and even less the morality of "preferences." Instead, market "preferences" are simply defined operationally: they are identified by the agents' acceptance or rejection of exchange opportunities, as measured by prices. The "tipping point" at which declining prices turn "no-sales" into a "sales," plotted along variations in supply or demand, yields so-called "indifference curves." Cf. Mark Sagoff, "Some Problems with Environmental Economics," Environmental Ethics, 10 (Spring, 1988), p. 58.
22. "We live in a world of reasonably well-informed people acting intelligently in pursuit of their self-interests." George Stigler, "Economics or Ethics," in Sterling McMurrin (ed), The Tanner Lectures on Human Values, v. II, 1981, p. 176.
23. Sen, loc. cit., pp. 1-2, see opening quotation. If rationality is defined as "self-interested utility maximization" then by implication, the behavior of saints and heros such as Gandhi, King and Mandella is "irrational." The reply is familiar: "But these individuals behaved as they did because they chose to do so." Thus "self-interested acts" are redefined to mean "voluntary acts," and the apparent egoism of economic theory is reduced to a tautology. If, in fact, the claim that "human beings are fundamentally motivated by self-interest" is to be empirically meaningful, then it must also be falsifiable - the defenders of this psychological egoism must be prepared to describe what it would be like (allegedly contrary to fact) to encounter voluntary acts that are not self-interested. If the lives of Gandhi, King and Mandella are not contrary evidence, then what would be?
25. The first five criteria are adapted from Mary Anne Warren's paper, "On the Moral and Legal Status of Abortion" (The Monist, 57:1, Jan. 1973, p. 55). The final four criteria are my additions to Warren's list.
26. Because the only "persons" we know of are human beings, there is a widespread temptation to treat the terms "person" and "human being" as synonymous. This careless equation of meaning leads to a great deal of confusion and befuddlement in moral arguments, most notably arguments over such issues as abortion, euthanasia, and environmental ethics. The distinction between person (a moral concept) and human being (a biological concept) can readily be grasped by citing contrary cases. In the TV series, "Star Trek" the android, "Data," not to mention numerous "aliens" are depicted as non-human persons. Dolphins may be persons, although we have not determined this to be the case. On the other hand, a severely brain damaged or irreversibly comatose human being is not a person.
29. "The moral point of view" is a term adopted by numerous philosophers, most notably Kurt Baier, the author of a book with that title. The concept also appears in John Stuart Mill as "the ideal observer," in John Rawls as "the original position," and Thomas Nagel as "the view from nowhere."
33. My emphasis. Milton Friedman, October, 1983, quoted by Peter Brown in a "pre-text" page of his book, Restoring the Public Trust, Boston: Beacon Press, 1994. I am awaiting a reply from Prof. Brown to my request for an exact citation of that quotation by Friedman.
35. To this point, this paper is original and prepared expressly for the Vilm Conference (May, 1999). The remainder will draw heavily from a paper prepared for a conference, in Kyoto, Japan, November 1994, and later published as "Posterity and the "Strains of Commitment," Kim and Dator, eds., Creating a New History for Future Generations (also the name of the conference), Kyoto: Institute for the Integrated Study of Future Generations, 1995.
38. This critique of Rawls's "Just Savings Principle," in particular the following account of "just anticipations," "just forbearances," and "just stewardship," is drawn from my unpublished paper, "Beyond Just Savings." A briefer version of that paper, which has its origins in my Doctoral Dissertation, "Rawls and the Duty to Posterity," (University of Utah, 1976), was presented at the Pacific Division Meeting of the American Philosophical Association, March, 1978.