Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Friday, July 16, 2010

One for the philosophers

Me from a couple of days ago:

In general, what makes people and things dangerous is their capacity to do harm, not their intrinsic badness

this was meant as a nod in the direction of the Goldacre fans among my readership - BG does (and this is much to his credit as many of his competitors for the "sceptic" brand write whole books about "Counterknowledge" which don't even mention tobacco/lung cancer) take on pseudoscience carried out by the pharmaceutical industry, but it's less than a fifth of the amount of text and effort that he spends on woo. Whereas, as I noted in that post, even if one brackets out the potential deaths caused, you can see that one single piece of scientific malpractice carried out by a pharma company caused misdirection of medical expenditure a hundred times greater than the annual NHS spend on homeopathy. The point being, that if effort was expended in rough proportion to the harm done, people would hardly mention homeopathy at all. (Update: Goldacre's "Bad Science" col covers this story this week, although I think "disappointing behaviour" is perhaps a little mild as a description of what happened).

But I kind of gave up on that angle, because there's something wrong with that decision rule. It sounds reasonably intuitive (or at least it does to me with my own background; it's basically a loose way of talking about a marginal cost criterion), and I think it certainly beats the alternative rule of expending all of one's effort on the single worst problem until it is solved (the "why aren't we talking about Burma/Darfur/Zimbabwe?" gambit in international human rights). But it leads you into some weird places.

For example, if you're just saying that "the badness of something is determined by the amount of harm it does", then Prohibition was a success. Just as I reasoned that Hitler was more dangerous than Peter Tobin because he was in charge of an industrialised state, the fact is that alcohol consumption at the level of the USA in the 1910s was almost certainly causing more death and injury than any criminal gang could ever have done. Or you end up trying to judge all potential expenditure against a yardstick of spending the money on vaccination and water provision in the Third World and closing down the Royal Opera. And so on. But I don't really understand why the rule doesn't work.

Important note: thanks very much, but I did do "Utilitarianism: For And Against" at university and got an alpha in Finals; I'm reasonably familiar with most of the theoretical arguments, at least at the level at which it's possible to discuss them in blog comments. I'm not really asking about the moral arguments in favour of (or against) utilitarianism per se and am aware that there is basically no way of arguing against Peter Singer once you've accepted his premises. I'm thinking more about the "importance in proportion to harm and benefit" rule as a practical political principle of decision theory, and why it doesn't seem to work.

There are a few obvious possibilities which I think are red herrings. Prohibition was indeed largely bad for libertarian reasons rather than because of anything to do with health outcomes, but I think that even the health outcome justification for it fails. In the other example, I am also heavily sceptical about whether the quoted marginal benefits of vaccination and water projects are actually deliverable on any reliable basis, but I think I'd still regard the "shut down the Royal Opera and spend the money on the poor" rule as wrong even if I wasn't.

My own guess is that a rule like this breaks one of the important criteria for a rule of justice that are there in some versions of Rawls - that the social decision rule has to be justifiable to everyone in society on their own terms, otherwise it's not really a society. If you have an overarching rule about priorities, it's going to create what Kenneth Arrow calls "positional dictators" - ie people whose position in the current allocation of resources gives them a status such that the social utility function is wholly determined by theirs. More importantly, there are going to be loads of people whose priorities are nowhere near the social priorities and who therefore have no chance whatsoever of seeing their particular hobbyhorse being funded. People like that are eventually going to get pig sick of making their contribution, because they're going to believe (correctly) that the society they're in isn't working for them.
95 comments this item posted by the management 7/16/2010 12:21:00 AM

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