Friday, June 16, 2017

An Introduction to “Nudge Science” and the Ethics of Influence

Ronald F. White, Ph.D.
Mount St. Joseph University
Department of Philosophy
Mount St. Joseph University

Let’s begin by addressing the most obvious question. Given the vast number of books published on political science every year, why would the Association for Politics and the Life Science (APLS) and it’s journal Politics and the Life Sciences (PLS) expend time, energy, and resources publishing a multiple-author analysis of a book that contains little (if anything) about the life sciences, Darwin, or evolution? The answer is that The Ethics of Influence provides an excellent opportunity for APLS to further expand its commitment to interdisciplinarity; especially, behavioral economics.
Cass R. Sunstein, a prolific author, has written several books and scholarly articles defending “libertarian paternalism.” (Sunstein 2008, 2014, 2016, 2017) Libertarian critics have long-argued that the conjunction of “libertarian” and “paternalism,” is oxymoronic; and that the “liberty principle” or the “principle of autonomy” excludes paternalistic intervention on behalf of rational, competent adults. Over the years, with varying degrees of success, Sunstein has addressed many, if not most lines of criticism emanating from both the political left and right. And, like many scholars, his views have evolved, over time, based on that criticism. This roundtable review will focus on the arguments presented in most recent book and how those arguments may (or may not) apply to recent public policy issues. By way of introduction, I will introduce some of the more enduring elements of the conceptual framework that underlies Nudge Science; most notably, the concepts of: choice architecture; political bans, mandates, and influence, political ethics, and paternalistic intervention. 

Choice Architecture

 In recent years, the philosophical debate over “free-will v. determinism” in the context of human decision-making has been usurped by the social and biological sciences. Sunstein, a pioneer in the field of behavioral economics, has consistently argued that human decision-making is “framed” by “choice architecture;” a set of causal variables that influence (if not determine) our ultimate decisions.  We are not always aware of this framework and therefore we often confuse “freedom to choose” with “freedom to choose within architectural constraints.”
Given the vast number of architectural variables that shape our ultimate decisions, one might still question how much room is left for freedom of choice? But, for now, let’s leave these metaphysical arguments for those lingering pre-scientific philosophers.
Today, philosophical analysis initially focuses on clarifying the meanings of key concepts. In ordinary language we use the term “influence” in many different contexts. In physics, scientists use it to indicate natural causal relationships between non-living things; that is, the sun “influences” the orbit of the earth. Biologists employ the same term to describe a wide variety of relationships between living things and their environment. And finally, in the human sciences we use the term influence to designate a wide array of relationships between humans; but not without risking confusion between causality with influence.
At least some of the choice architecture that underlies our decision-making is contextual, and therefore shaped by our own individual or collective life history and/or unique genetic makeup. Interpersonal influence can be exercised between individuals (family, friends, and/or strangers) or between collective organizations (businesses and/or governments). However, “Nudge Science,” seeks to identify the (more or less) universal psychological forces that constitute human choice architecture. Sunstein and others argue that, scientific knowledge of these universal mechanisms will improve our own individual decision-making by exposing our own natural biases. But it will also advance our individual and collective ability to influence the behavior of others (hopefully for the better); and perhaps even increase our own ability to resist unwanted interpersonal influence.
One way to explore the relationship between choice architecture and our ultimate choices is to analyze a few relatively simple, clear-cut case studies. For example, we all agree that our decision whether or not to go on a picnic on any given day is influenced (or nudged) by the external physical environment, especially the weather. In short: “nature nudges.” (Sunstein, 2016: 35) However, there may be conflicting opinions of what constitutes good and bad picnic weather. My personal rule of thumb would be: “the hotter the better.” In the case of conflicting weather predictions, our would-be picnickers might “trust” one local forecaster more than another. If it turns out to be unexpectedly cold and/or raining on the day of the picnic, the availability of a picnic shelter may be turn out to be highly influential, if not decisive. 
Although nature and the external physical environment, obviously, influence many of our decisions, it does not, necessarily, determine those decisions. That’s because our decisions may also be influenced by external social and/or political variables. Our decision to picnic at any given park might also be externally influenced by legal bans and legal mandates. Many public parks legally ban the consumption of alcohol, or legally mandate dogs to be on leashes. Hence, consumers of alcohol and/or dog owners might choose one park over another based on legality. But all legal bans and mandates require monitoring and enforcement, which require a costly, ever-vigilant police force, and judiciary. Depending on whether a local government is willing and/or able to monitor and enforce these legal bans and mandates, those laws might be undermined by a “black market effect,” whereby would-be picnickers might deliberately choose to violate those bans and mandates. In fact, many utilitarians follow Sunstein and argue that it’s often more cost effective for political leaders to exercise influence over citizens, rather to monitor and enforce legal bans and mandates.
While our choices are obviously “framed” by external physical and sociopolitical architecture, those choices are also influenced by internal, psychological forces. Psychologists now agree that human decisions are ultimately shaped by cognitive operations that have evolved over millions of years, which are located in specific regions of the human brain. System 1 cognitive operations are “fast, automatic, and intuitive;” which include perceptual and emotive operations. They tend to be associated with the parts of the brain responsible for perception (back) and part responsible for emotive responses (inner). System 2 cognitive operations are “slow, calculative, and deliberative.” (Sunstein, 2016: 28) “Rational” operations emanate from the frontal lobes or cerebral cortex. As scientific knowledge of System 1 and System 2 operations advance, so will our individual and collective ability to influence and/or manipulate the behavior of others. However, that same knowledge might also advance our ability to resist unwanted political influences. The long-term challenge for Nudge Science is to distinguish between universal choice architecture that underlies all human decision-making, from  architectural determinants that are contextual, and/or relative to specific individuals and cultures. 
Historically, the most obvious applications for Nudge Science have been in the domain of business marketing; as the most successful business leaders have long employed knowledge of various cognitive operators in order to more effectively market their products and services to consumers. Sunstein and others seek to expand the exercise of influence into politics.   

Political Bans, Mandates, and Influence 

Worldwide, political regimes tend toward either authoritarianism or democracy. For better or worse, all regimes exercise both coercive force and influence over citizens. Authoritarian regimes rely almost entirely on coercive force, by monitoring and enforcing legal bans and mandates; which often dictate, not only what is good, but also how to pursue it. So what are the moral limits to the exercise of political influence within liberal democracies?
Although Democratic Republics respect individual autonomy, they also employ combinations of political coercion (bans, mandates) and political influence (System 1 and System 2 Nudges). However, unlike Authoritarian regimes, Republican regimes must morally justify bans, mandates, and nudges. For example, most Western democracies employ System 2 nudges that mandate that private corporations conduct scientific research on the costs and benefits of the products and services they offer; and clearly and accurately “label” those products so consumers can make informed decisions whether to purchase those products or services. In the U.S. recent labeling proposals include mandating labels that identify Genetically Modified Foods (GMOs) and labels that disclose the caloric and sodium content of foods. As a general rule, most of us do not object to labeling nudges. There are also Public Education nudges, whereby governments mandate that corporations provide information concerning the risks associated with dangerous or unhealthy activities such as smoking, drinking, distracted driving, and childhood obesity. Again, most of us do not object to Public Education Nudges based on System 2.  
However, sometimes governments supplement System 2 nudges with System 1 nudges, by requiring graphic labels that instill fear of dangerous products. Fear is a powerful motivator. Other System 1 nudges are based on universal perceptual defaults, including our natural preferences for products presented at eye-level, and our inclination to choose the first alternative. Therefore, many democracies mandate that cafeterias present unhealthy, high caloric deserts at the end of the line, below eyelevel, in less conspicuous places. Although most of us oppose health-related bans and mandates, we often appreciate, or at least tolerate, health-related nudges. 
Most of us are also naturally wired by choice architecture (individually and collectively), to maintain the status quo, as evidenced by the formation of personal habits and cultural traditions. Both habits and traditions are notoriously difficult to change. That’s why we also have a propensity to avoid making life-changing decisions. Many liberal democracies, therefore, mandate that we make choices, such as deciding whether to be an organ donor before getting a license. Other democracies employ Automatic Enrollment via default decisions, which offer passive “opt-out” benefits rather than active “opt-in” benefits, such as enrollment in Pension Plans or the use of Green Energy options. We are also naturally programmed more to avoid harm, than to pursue benefits. This explains why governments, worldwide, invoke fear rather than merely promise a better life.
Finally, we are also naturally predisposed to act in pursuit of short-term benefits, and avoidance short-term harms; less inclined to pursue long-term benefits or avoid-long term harms. In part, that’s why System 2 scientific arguments that warn of long-term harms associated with obesity, poverty in old age, breast cancer, and global warming, tend to fall on deaf ears. All of this suggests that System 2 nudges must occasionally be supplemented by System 1 nudges, and even bans and mandates.   

Political Ethics 

Much human behavior is teleological (or goal-directed) and therefore, requires the analysis of both means and ends. Empirical psychologists describe what human beings, in fact, pursue (ends) and how they pursue those ends (means). Ethicists, however, prescribe not only the ends that we all ought to pursue, but also how we ought to pursue those ends. As a libertarian, Sunstein embraces the idea that liberty consists in the freedom to choose which ends are worth pursuing, as long as that pursuit does not harm others. Therefore, the Ethics of Influence limits the application of Nudge Science to helping us achieve the universal ends that all humans value. Sunstein argues that unlike “ends nudges” (which dictate what we ought to pursue) “means nudges” are (by definition) “freedom preserving.” (Sunstein, 2016:
Ethics, like psychology, political science, and economics, is a scholarly discipline. For centuries, theologians and philosophers dominated that discipline. The Western Legal and Moral Tradition focuses on both “knowing” (what to do or not to do) and being willing or able (to do or not do it). Thus the determination of moral responsibility for one’s actions involves both rationality (the ability to know what’s right and what’s wrong) and free will (the ability to do what’s right and not do what’s wrong. The ability to “know” is widely regarded as a System 2 brain function and the ability to “do” is usually considered to be a product of System 1.  For centuries moral philosophers argued that ethical behavior is determined by either System 1 “feelings” or System 2 “knowledge.” Historically ethicists argued over whether ethics is anchored in System 1 emotions or feelings or System 2 rationality?  Today we know it’s both.
Philosophers have also long-debated the role that moral rules and/or principles play in moral decision-making. Political philosophers have also questioned the degree to which liberal democracies ought to rely on legality (laws) and morality (moral rules). Sunstein identifies four values, or “foundational commitments” that constitute the ethics of political influence in a liberal democracy: welfare, autonomy, dignity, and self-government. (Sunstein. 2016: 25) However, the simultaneous advancement of all four values is often problematic. In a liberal democracy (Republic), self-government often trumps welfare, autonomy, and dignity. Therefore, unpopular bans, mandates, and nudges carry with them a political cost.
Sunstein’s four commitments are non-controversial and deeply embedded in the Western liberal tradition. However, many philosophers would amend that list to include utility, justice, or non-maleficence. Others might question whether his four commitments logically independent.  For this review we’ll, assume that these four principles capture the essence of morality in a modern liberal democracy. Given these four moral commitments, how might the U.S. government go about justifying the deployment of specific bans, mandates, and nudges?
Recall that political scientists have long observed that authoritarian political regimes rely almost exclusively on coercive force; in the form of “bans” (Don’t do X or you’ll be punished by the state!) and “mandates” (Do Y or you’ll be punished by the state!)  Democratic regimes, in contrast, set moral and/or legal limits on the use of coercive force. Left-leaning democratic regimes tend to emphasize human welfare, often at the expense of autonomy, and self-government. Sometimes welfare-liberals are even willing to employ coercive bans and mandates in pursuit of welfare. Right-leaning political philosophers, in the libertarian tradition, value autonomy and dignity over both welfare and liberal democracy. For Sunstein, the battleground lies in the ethics of state paternalism.  

The Ethics of State Paternalism

 Given the complexities presented by choice architecture and the potential for unintended self-destructive decisions, paternalistic intervention by liberal democracies has become increasingly common. Paternalism, by definition, involves treating an adult as a child, thus violating his/her autonomy and dignity in order to either remove a harm or provide a benefit. State paternalism, involves government treating rationally competent adults as if they are irrational, incompetent children. The conceptual puzzle stems from the apparent contradiction between the Western concept of “human agency” (autonomy and dignity) and rapidly growing body of research associated with “behavioral economics.”(Sunstein 2017) For Sunstein, the central question of political ethics is whether autonomy, necessarily, trumps welfare, dignity, and democracy. If not, under what conditions might paternalistic intervention be justifiable?
In his classic work book, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, laid the conceptual foundation for anti-paternalism in liberal democracies. He argued that the only justification for the use of political force (legal bans and mandates) is to prevent or remove “harm to others.” However, “harm to self” by rational competent adults is protected by the liberty principle. According to Mill, paternalistic intervention by government officials must be limited by the above “very simple principle.” The first step is to determine whether that potential beneficiary is a rational, competent adult. If so, then that official may also inquire whether that person, knows that this action will (in fact) result in harm to self. If so, that official may present rational argument in order to change his mind. But ultimately, physical coercion must be avoided. Thus, according to Mill, paternalistic intervention on behalf of rational competent adults must be limited to the determination of System 2 competence. If that person is a rational competent adult, then paternalistic intervention must be limited to providing information and issuing a warning. Sunstein seeks to soften Mill’s anti-paternalistic stance based on state-of-the-art behavioral science.
There are three longstanding philosophical problems are associated with anti-paternalism: an epistemic problem, a moral agency problem, and the impure paternalism problem. The first two problems are deeply embedded in the Western liberal tradition, which says that rational, competent adults must be treated as “moral agents,” who can be held legally and morally responsible for their actions toward themselves or others. The third problem is the direct result of the corporatization of welfare.
The epistemic problem arises from the fact that “human agents” (rational, competent adults) may not “know” (for lack of information) what’s good to do in order to promote their own well-being (do exercise), or what not to do (don’t smoke). Libertarians, in the John Stuart Mill tradition, argue that once a rationally competent adult is informed (warned) of the self-regarding risks associated with any activity, government cannot forcefully interfere with that informed choice. But how much information does a rational, competent, adult need in order to make a truly informed self-regarding decision? What should that paternalistic governmental official do, if there is conflicting public information concerning the degree and/or probability of a specific activity? How much information does a rational, agent need, before he/she engages in a self-harming activity, such as smoking? If a genetic test were available that might “inform” that would-be smoker of his/her own cancer risk, and that would-be smoker refuses to take the test, is that person really informed? Should government sometimes mandate those tests?
            Moral agency is usually ascribed to rationally competent adult humans. Thus, human agency hinges on the standards of knowing and doing. Even if a rational person knows” what’s good for him/her (do exercise, don’t smoke), that person may not be willing or able to do or not do it. Informed moral agents might freely choose to smoke because “by their own lights” the immediate pleasure of smoking outweighs the long-term health risks. In short, a person may know what to do or not do, but will not or cannot do it or not do it. Some humans obviously lack moral agency, including young children and/or adults; who, by their very nature, lack rationality or free will. Today, given a widespread explosion of conflicting scientific information that is readily available; rational competent adults may be regarded as de facto incompetent.  Many substances and activities are now regarded as addictive, including: tobacco, alcohol, heroin and even gambling. Addiction is widely regarded a mental and/or physical disease, that justifies paternalistic medical intervention. Thus the battleground lies in the question of whether person P knows what to do, and if so, can person P do it? As psychologists continue to plumb the depths of choice architecture, the more difficult it will become to defend absolute standards of moral agency. The third problem is impure paternalism, whereby paternalistic intervention by the state (in the form of bans, mandates, and nudges) benefits not only the intended beneficiary, but other third parties, who benefit by providing that benefit or removing that harm. Sometimes these third-parties are governmental officials, or their friends or relatives; and sometimes they are for-profit private businesses, non-profit charitable organizations. Americans often object to impure paternalistic interventions that provide minimal benefit to the intended beneficiary, while providing enormous benefits to third parties. In recent years, the Affordable Care Act included both an employer and employee mandate to purchase costly health insurance. That mandate has proven to be increasingly unpopular among small businesses and young healthy workers.    

Summary and Conclusion

In sum, many (if not most) humans lack the intellectual capacity to acquire and/or process the vast amount of information that is now available. And many lack the will to act upon that information. Many instances of state paternalism benefit third-parties. This sets us up for the basic issue that underlies the Ethics of Influence: Is Mill’s anti-paternalistic stance still justified? Is paternalistic intervention exercised by the leaders of left-leaning liberal democracies ever morally justified? If paternalistic intervention is sometimes justified, under what circumstances might liberal democracies violate autonomy and/or, dignity in pursuit of welfare? The answer lies in self-government. Liberal democracies must refrain from the deployment of political bans, mandates, and influence that are enormously unpopular. In Appendix A (204-208) Sunstein lists 34 nudges and their corresponding approval ratings, which range from 86% approval for Mandatory Labels for GMOs to 21% approval rating for “Default assumption of Christianity for census data.” Liberal Democracies must also be wary of paternalistic interventions that line the pockets of third parties; most notably corporations that generously contribute to political campaigns.
In the final analysis, The Ethics of Influence is NOT about freedom and determinism. The fact is that our all of our decisions are influenced by choice architecture. Sunstein’s goal is to determine whether liberal democracies ought to employ freedom-diminishing bans and mandates or freedom-preserving nudges. Those decisions, he argues, ought to be made in conjunction with moral values: welfare, autonomy, dignity, and self-government. When the deployment of influence is morally/legally justified, then leaders must, then, decide which kinds of “nudges” (System 1 or System 2) are morally justified and/or efficient?   As nudge science advances, the exercise of political influence by liberal democraciesmay become increasingly more efficient. The Ethics of Influence is all about when to mandate, ban, or influence. If nudges are morally required or morally permitted, what kinds of nudges are best employed in various contexts, and for how long?
So how might recent advances in Nudge Science be applied in addressing some of todays’ most vexing public policy issues in the United States, including: obesity and dietary nudges, post-employment poverty and retirement savings nudges, breast cancer and mammogram screening nudges, and environmental degradation and environmental nudges?        



Sunstein, Cass R.; Thaler, Richard (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.


Sunstein, Cass R. (2013). Simpler: The Future of Government. New York: Simon & Schuster.


Sunstein, Cass R. (2014). Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (The Storrs Lectures Series). Yale University Press.


Sunstein, Cass R. (2016) The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science. New York, Cambridge University Press,


Sunstein, Cass R. (2017) Human Agency and Behavioral Economics: Nudging Fast and Slow (Palgrave Advances in Behavioral Economics) Switzerland: Palgrave McMillan.


David V. Johnson (2017) “Twilight of the Nudges: The Quest to Keep Behavioral Economic in Policy After Obama’s Presidency.” New Republic


Sunstein, Cass R. and Richard Thaler “Libertarian Paternalism” The American Economic Review. Vol 7 Number 2 ( May 2003) pp. 175-179






Friday, June 2, 2017

Virtue-Based Moral Theories

Most of the discussion so far in this book has related to moral theories that were articulated in the late eighteenth century. But moral theory has been around a lot longer than that. In the Western world (and the Eastern World) there is a venerable system of moral reasoning based on the idea of virtue. Let’s call those various systems virtue-based moral systems. In the history of Western moral theory, there are two different types of virtue-based systems. The non-secular line of inquiry relies on divine command theory in order to discern moral virtues from vices, as illustrated by the Judeo-Christian moral tradition. The secular line of inquiry relies primarily on reason and experience, and not divine command theory. It goes back to the ancient Greeks, via the writings of Homer, Hesiod, Plato, and Aristotle. The particular virtues espoused by non-secular and secular theories are often contradictory; therefore it’s hard to discern the common thread that binds these two virtue-based systems. But I’ll try.

First of all, all virtue-based systems tend elevate community over individuals. Therefore, they tend more toward communitarianism than individualism. Secular virtue-based systems usually identify communities with political regimes. In the case of the Greeks, it was the city-state. Judeo-Christian non-secular virtue-based systems theorists identify with religious communities. 

For both the non-secular and secular traditions, the virtue of something refers to its excellence: something that performs its function well. So anything subject to degrees (good, better, and best etc.) has its virtue. Hence, virtue determines status within a prescriptive hierarchy. Although we can talk about the virtue of a specific kind of computer over others, the Greeks most often referred to virtue as excellence of human character and behavior. Aristotle differentiated between two spheres of human activity that are governed by virtue: the intellectual sphere and the social or political sphere. Intellectual virtues reflect excellence of thought (wisdom etc), while moral virtues reflect excellence of human behavior (courage etc.)  Hence, Aristotle, a hedonist, envisioned two alternative paths to human excellence and consummate happiness: the intellectual life of the philosopher-scientist and the social life of the politician. It’s not clear which road to the good life that Aristotle valued more.

All virtue-based moral systems focus on big questions such as: “What is the ‘Good Life? And “How do I go about living the ‘Good Life?” Therefore, they tend to focus on how to live one’s life, over the long run, rather than how to address particular issues that pop up at any given time. In short, virtue-based systems focus on character development within harmonious communities. These systems also tend to rely on moral exemplars, or role models. Once a person has internalized the virtue of kindness, then that person will exemplify that virtue in his/her actions.    

Virtue-based moral systems also differentiate between virtues (good behavior) and vices (bad behavior). Ultimately, non-secular virtue-based theories differentiate between virtues and vices based on religious authorities, usually traced back to the authority of the Bible and/or its official interpreters. The Christian authorities have identified faith, hope, and charity as its primary virtues. If you pursue these ideals over the course of your lifetime, you’ll lead a “good life.”             

Aristotle believed moral virtue consists in choosing the mean between the extremes of excess and deficiency within any given sphere of action. The vice of excess consists in choosing too much of a good thing and the vice of deficiency consists of not enough. Excellence is found midway between the two. For example, the virtue of bravery can be found midway between the vices of cowardice and foolhardiness. Today bravery is most often confused with foolhardiness. Obviously, an excellent army must have brave soldiers that are not afraid to die. But the purpose of going to war is to kill the soldiers in the opposing. An army of foolhardy soldiers will not last any longer than an army of cowards.

Below is a chart of Aristotelian virtues, their respective spheres of action and their corresponding vices. 



Pleasure and Pain
Acquisition (minor)
tight wad
spendthrift or prodigality
Acquisition (major)
undue humility
pride or proper ambition
undue  vanity
patience or good temper
Self deprecating
Social Conduct
righteous indignation

Moral virtue, according to Aristotle, is a character trait; a disposition of an individual to act in a certain way, under certain circumstances. These circumstances usually involve how we respond to emotional states via the exercise of reason. These habits or dispositions are cultivated via social and political institutions, especially institutions of education. The idea is to encourage desirable habitual behaviors (virtuous) behavior and discourage undesirable (vicious) behaviors. The actual standard of the virtue of courage varies between individuals and in different kinds of situations involving fear. For example, under conditions of war, the standard of courage would be different for soldiers and policemen, on the one hand, and civilians on the other. I’m sure Aristotle would have argued that men are more likely to be courageous than women, however, I think that’s wrong. It would be irrational to expect soldiers and civilians to act the same way under battle conditions. There are dangerous situations in war where certain responses are indicative of a foolhardy character. Courageous soldiers retreat in those situations. There are also situations where cowardly soldiers retreat, without just cause.  

Moral education must begin at an early age and consists in developing the habit of choosing the mean between the extremes. Moral character is, therefore, cultivated in children by teaching them to emulate the behavior of virtuous adults. A child becomes virtuous when he/she habitually does the right thing and experiences pleasure upon doing it. Although knowing what the right thing to do is a necessary condition for virtue, it is not sufficient. You must also be able to “do the right thing.” Hence, Aristotle made a distinction between virtue and mere continence, or “weakness of the will.” An incontinent person knows the right thing to do, but is unable to do it because he/she is driven more by base feelings than reason. A continent person knows the right thing to do and even succeeds in doing it, but he/she does not feel pleasure upon doing it. In contrast, a virtuous person is not driven by base feelings and therefore feels good upon doing the right thing. An adult habitually prone toward excess or deficiency has a vicious character and will always act that way. Aristotle did not believe that vicious adults could be easily rehabilitated into virtuous adults. Send the bad guys to prison in order to protect us from their excesses, and to enforce justice. But don’t waste time and effort trying to rehabilitate them. That's why both Plato and Aristotle were advocates of rigorous childhood moral education.

The Greeks favored a republican form of government, modeled after the Greek city-states where the early communitarian philosophers like Plato and Aristotle lived. Republicanism according to the Ancient Greeks requires the cultivation of a common set of virtues, or character traits among its citizens. So in contrast to liberal democracies where "the right precedes the good," in a republic, "the good precedes the right." Republican communitarians, therefore, seek to promote standards of excellence consistent with the good of the whole community. Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics was probably the first systematic exposition of a secular virtue-based ethical system.  Here are a few more tidbits.  

It is important to note that Aristotle is a hedonist (of a sort) and therefore, he thought that the end or goal of all deliberate human action is pleasure, or happiness. Not pleasure in the immediate present but pleasure over the course of one's entire lifetime. A good person experiences pleasure at the right time, place, and degree. Aristotle also distinguished between higher pleasures and lower pleasures. Lower pleasures (eating) are those pleasures that animals are capable of enjoying, while higher pleasures (reading philosophy) are pleasures that can only be appreciated by rational human beings. Rationality, unfortunately, is not distributed equally among human beings. Some of us are only capable of experiencing the lower pleasures, while others (usually the upper classes) can experience the higher pleasures. 

While the Greeks favored Aristocracy as a form of government, some recent communitarians advocate cultivating character traits that are essential for participation in democratic self-government. For example, they argue that democracies must cultivate civic virtues such as friendship and caring in children in order to prepare them to cooperate in a communal setting. They argue that when children are raised in a culture based on unbridled self-interest, meaningful communal relationships become difficult to sustain.

Finally, virtue-based moral systems share one common feature with teleological and deontological moral systems: they are subject to human inquiry. Therefore, there is a lot of variation within that broad framework. There is very little consensus among virtue-based ethicists as to the nature of the Good Life, what specific virtues comprise the Good life, and how to go about teaching virtue. However, don’t get me wrong! This is not intended as an indictment of virtue-based moral systems, but rather a more general observation pertaining to all moral systems. As I stated from the very beginning of this book: Do not fall for the now fashionable argument that living the good life is easy, or that the study of ethics is easy. You can spend your entire lifetime questioning and answering these kinds of questions, and as you grow older you will no doubt change your mind many times over. Despite all this, I do think that moral inquiry will invariably revolve around the moral theories and principles emphasized in this book.        



Sweat Shops

In news features that cover international trade, we often hear the term "sweat shop," usually in reference to a factory that operates in an under-developed country or region. But most of the media coverage is woefully overly-simplistic. So what is a "sweat shop?"   First of all, it's a disparaging term that is used to describe the working conditions (health and safety) and/or the wages paid to employees. Stakeholder Theorists are objectivists who argue that there are objective moral limits to how these factories "ought" to treat their workers. The two main principles that are invoked in anti-sweat shop arguments are non-maleficence and justice.  Therefore, "When in Rome do what's right." Stockholder Theorists tend to be relativists who argue that there are no obvious global moral standards and that nations have a liberty-based right to set their own cultural standards in terms of working conditions and/or compensation: "When in Rome do what the Romans do."  Recall that Stockholder Theorists are typically minarchists who argue that government ought to minimize laws governing economic development; while Stakeholder Theorists advocate legal solutions to market-based problems; especially in cases of "market failure." Stockholder Theorists argue that free labor markets do not fail, governments are the root cause of market failure.   

Before we get started, let's recall that, even within national borders, moral standards for health/safety standards and compensation standards are controversial. Therefore, don't expect international, regional, or industry-wide standards to be less controversial.

Working conditions that violate the principle of non-maleficence "harm the employees;" usually via unhealthy or unsafe working conditions. These conditions include long hours, dangerous, boring, repetitive work that often leads to injury, sickness, and even death. Although, factories in Third-World countries are usually the main target of objectivist distain, other kinds of industries are also targeted, including mining and farming. Typically, "sweat shops" offer no Western style benefits such as health care, retirement, or unemployment compensation. If an employee gets injured or sick at work, he/she most likely will get fired and replaced by someone else.

Objectivist critics also argue that sweat shops also violate the moral principle of justice; by paying workers extremely low wages in comparison to what workers are paid in other countries, including highly-developed nations. In terms of justice, critics argue that sweat shops violate the material principle of merit, by paying workers "less than they deserve;" and/or the material principle of need, by paying workers less than they need to stay alive. Many objectivists are Kantians and therefore argue that these wages are predatory or exploitative and that beneficence and justice trump liberty and utility. Kant, of course, would have argued that sweat shops violate the Categorical Imperative.

Relativists argue that morality is mostly contextual: "When in Rome do as the Romans do." At least some relativists argue that the only universal moral principle that is relevant to business is the liberty principle; that is to say, corporations cannot force employees to work via coercion or threats of deliberate physical violence. Therefore, many relativists would argue that slavery is timelessly and universally wrong. Some relativists argue that the ethics of slavery is also contextual and subject to the mantra: "When in Rome do as the Romans do." However, worldwide the vast majority of sweat shops pay their workers, and allow them to quit their jobs, so slavery is not a major concern in manufacturing. However, some industries often utilize  slavery, most often in sexually oriented industries such as prostitution, pornography etc. Desperate women and children are the most likely to fall victim to sex slavery; especially in cultures that believe that women and children are property of males and therefore lack any moral rights.

Other objectivists invoke the Principle of Utility, observe that slavery is costly, worldwide, and that many women and children have to no realistic alternatives; "It's the least-worst alternative." Other utilitarians point out that if Western Nations make sweat shops illegal, corporations will simply move to other nations where sweat shops are legal and/or that sweat shops would shut down in third countries, move to First-World countries, and leave under-developed nations undeveloped with no employment opportunities. That would also raise prices for consumers.

Given the fact that corporations are composed of various stakeholders (stockholders, employees, consumers, financiers, and local communities) questions of moral responsibility emerge. Do stockholders have a duty to sacrifice stock profits in order to provide healthier, safer working conditions and/or higher wages? Do employees have a duty to refuse to work in sweat shops, even if they pay more than any other employer and/or if they are safer at work than at home? Do Consumers have a duty to NOT purchase products and/or services produced by sweat shops? Should financiers refuse to loan money to sweat shops, even if they are profitable?  

Finally, Stockholder Theorists are relativists and argue that sweat shops are a "natural" stage in labor market development, and that eventually, as other less-predatory employers move to developing nations and naturally invade those initial monopolies(in order to exploit cheap labor), and that under competitive pressure, employers will be forced by the free market to offer better working conditions and pay more. In fact, all developed nations go through that initial predatory stage, and that when Stakeholder Theorists attempt to interfere in these labor markets, they simply delay market development.


Friday, April 28, 2017

Choice Magazine Book Review of: Mizzoni, John. Evolution and the foundations of ethics: evolutionary perspectives on contemporary normative and metaethical theories. Lexington Books, 2017

Reviewer: White, Ronald F. Mount St. Joseph University      

This ambitious, interdisciplinary work explains how evolutionary ethics might elucidate recent philosophical debates over alternative normative and metaethical theories. It is conveniently divided into three parts: Part I. Evolution and Metaethics (Error Theory, Expressivism, Moral Relativism, and Moral Realism); Part II. Evolution and Normative Ethics (Virtue Ethics, Natural Law, Social Contract, Deontology, Utilitarianism, and Care Ethics); and, III. Evolution and Ethics (Conclusion).  The predictable conclusion is that that evolutionary ethics neither confirms nor disconfirms any one metaethical or normative theory. Critics will observe that this book focuses more on ethical theories than evolutionary ethics; and that there’s an over-emphasis on 20th century evolutionary scientists such as Dawkins, Wilson, and Gould. Consequently, there’s much more to be said about state-of-the-art evolutionary ethics; most notably, evolutionary leadership theory, cultural evolution, and the “mismatch theory.” Despite the above limitations, this is a good, broad-based introduction to the interface between moral theory and evolutionary ethics. It provides and especially lucid summary of twentieth-century moral philosophy. It will be most useful for evolutionary scholars (and upper level/grad students) who have never studied ethical theories, in depth. For a more concise textbook in this genre, check out Scott James’ An Introduction to Evolutionary Ethics (Wiley-Blackwell: 2011).

Friday, April 21, 2017


In classical economics, the price a corporation charges its customers for a product is the total cost of investment plus normal profit. Stakeholder theorists often argue that some corporations that exorbitant prices are unfair to consumers. The question of price fairness, however, cannot be examined apart from a theory of justice.

Any unjust pricing structure violates the formal principle of justice which states that we are obligated to "treat equals equally and unequals unequally." In any economic relationship, an unfair price structure effects both the buyer and the seller. If either the buyer or the seller receives more than what is deserved, than the other naturally receives less. A fair price, then, is one in which both the buyer and the seller receive exactly what they deserve. This formal principle, however, does not provide insight into which individuals are equal and what it is that they are entitled to as a matter of fairness. Hence, the formal principle requires a material theory of distributive justice.

Any material theory of distributive justice, attempts to establish rules that govern the distribution of pains and pleasures connect the properties or characteristics of persons and the morally correct distribution of benefits under specific conditions. There are two broad kinds of material theories of justice patterned theories and unpatterned theories.

Patterned theories, which are usually espoused by stakeholder theorists, judge the fairness of a distribution procedure based on the distribution pattern evident in the end-state after the distribution actually takes place. Traditionally, material distributions based on utility, need, merit, and equality fall into this category. Today two patterned theories seem to dominate the literature: egalitarianism which espouses an equal distribution of at least some social goods in the end-state; and, utilitarianism which promotes distributions that maximize the public good in the end-state. Hence, the difference between these "patterned" theories is reflected in the kinds of end-state patterns that are deemed morally preferable.

Unpatterned theories of justice, such as defended by libertarianism, reject the notion that any particular distribution found in the end-state is any more fair any other distribution. Unpatterned theories, therefore, focus on the fairness of the procedures that produce an end-state. Hence, any end-state that is generated by a fair procedure is deemed just or fair, regardless of how the benefits and burdens are distributed in the end-state. Stockholder theorists tend to defend unpatterned theories. The idea is that fair distributions are determined by blind market forces and not by beneficent (or malevolent) persons acting as empowered distributors. If you believe that you are being short-changed by the designated distributer, you can claim that that person was being unfair. If things are distributed based on impersonal market forces, there is no one person to blame. Market-based distributions can be unfortunate, but not unfair.

Worldwide, this basic philosophical distinction between patterned and unpatterned distribution schemes has spawned two opposing political philosophies that relate to how governments might regulate corporations: the unpatterned free market model and the patterned regulatory model.


Stockholder theorists embrace the unpatterned free-market model of pricing of everything: products, services, labor etc. The unpatterned free market model espouses laissez faire economic theory, where government intervention in markets is justified only to the extent that it enhances competition. As long as the selling price is determined by free market forces, the price and the resulting end-state distribution is deemed fair. Hence, stock holder theorists who endorse this model pursue procedural justice in public policy. Some libertarians are also committed to opportunity-based and risk-based pricing policies. Opportunity-based pricing sets the price at the highest possible level that buyers are willing to pay, without increasing production volume to the point where it diminishes total profit. In some markets some buyers are

inevitably priced out of the market as the result of opportunity-based pricing. However this is not deemed unfair, since unfairness is thought to arise only under imperfect competition.

Risk-based pricing takes into account the financial and market risk that a company takes by exploiting an economic opportunity in a given market: the greater the risk that a company takes in marketing a given product or service, higher the expectation for profit; and conversely, the lower the risk taken, the lower the profit expectation. Under a risk-based pricing policy, an unfair price violates the formal principle of justice when prices are set higher than the risk exposure can justify. Both opportunity-based and risk-based pricing are blind to the end-state pattern (the actual distribution of their product among consumers), therefore it is impossible for pharmaceutical companies to exercise any social obligations toward price sensitive patients. Moreover, both pricing policies require a bare minimum of governmental interference in the market's natural mechanisms.

Although, according to stockholder theory, corporations exist solely to generate profits and therefore have no direct obligation to serve the public good. They often argue that the public interest is best served by free competition in the marketplace and that at least some temporary monopolies are morally unacceptable.

Stockholder theorists argue that there are two different kinds of monopoly: Natural Monopolies and Artificial Monopolies. Natural monopolies arise when business drives all of its competitors out of the market by offering superior products, more efficient operation, or lucky supply sources. Sometimes natural monopolies arise because of a contagion of incompetent competitors. The only condition here for natural monopoly is that has been forcibly prevented from entering the market. Artificial Monopolies, in contrast, arise where the sole provider of the services or goods gains a favorable market position because the government won't allow anyone else to enter that market to compete with them. Stakeholder theorists often create artificial monopolies where they believe market failure is inevitable, most notably in medicine and education.

Pharmaceutical companies are artificial monopolies that enjoy the benefits of imperfect competition. Libertarians generally reject this kind of tampering with markets and believe that artificial monopolies are the progeny of misguided patterned distribution schemes. Price unfairness in pharmaceutical markets occurs most often when the sellers profit more than could be justified under perfect competition.

Defenders of the patterned regulatory model argue that one cannot evaluate the fairness of a drug pricing policy apart from how it affects both sellers and the buyers in the end-state. Indeed, many distributions that result from opportunity-based and risk-based pricing policies end up depriving, at least some buyers of necessary, life-saving drug treatment. The Patterned Regulatory Model holds that in the distribution of essential goods and services (needs) unpatterned pricing policies are amoral, and therefore are irrelevant to the question of fairness.

Patterned theorists, therefore, prefer cost-based pricing policies which take into account a company's total investment in development, testing, manufacturing, and marketing of the product and then profit margin is set at a certain "reasonable" percentage. Here much depends on how one arrives at this percentage and how one defines a reasonable profit. It is generally agreed, however, that a reasonable price is one in which the price does not greatly exceed the full cost of researching, developing, manufacturing, marketing, and distributing the products. Costs might also a reasonable return for investors.

The inherent problem with cost-based pricing is that companies own this basic information, which sets up legal access barriers. Behind this wall of protection corporations are prone to manipulate costs in order to justify higher profits. So the first step toward instituting cost-based pricing for pharmaceutical products marketed in the United States would be for the government to gain legal access to the records of pharmaceutical companies.

In the United States, where corporate records are regarded as private property, this has been a difficult task. But it is important to acknowledge that pricing policies serve rationing mechanisms for products and services. As a result, products and services in the United States have been, in effect, rationed by the private decisions made by corporate leadership. Corporations typically justify high prices by arguing that they are entitled to be rewarded for the economic risks they assume for investing in research and development. However, many companies have resisted pressure from interest groups and the government to reveal their actual costs.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Health and Safety in the Workplace

The moral questions associated with health and safety in the workplace typically involve the harm principle and therefore are very complex. Ideally, one would expect companies to provide a healthy and safe working environment for all employees. But unfortunately, some occupations are inherently more dangerous than others, such as: steel work, police and military work, and lion taming. Although the workplace of a policeman or steel worker will never be as safe as that of a college professor, one might argue that companies ought to spare no expense in reducing those known risks. But providing a healthy and safe work environment always has a cost. Libertarians are fond of pointing out that government could make our interstate highways 100% safe by instituting a 25 MPH speed limit. But of course, that won't happen because the loss in terms of travel time is not worth the lives it would save. (What do you think about that one?) Similarly, most modern safety measures designed to protect policemen, such as well-equipped police cruisers, state of the art defensive weapons, cameras, bullet-proof vests, and well-trained police dogs all cost money. An idealist (usually a stakeholder theorist) might argue that the life of one policeman is more valuable than any amount of money, and therefore communities ought to spare no expense to insure the safest possible working environment. Although this may appear to be a sound moral position, I would argue that we must also take into account other principles such as utility and liberty.

A utilitarian would apply cost-benefit analysis and provide only those safety measures that are cost effective and most likely to actually protect the valued policeman from the most probable threats. Hence, if a small-town policeman rarely encounters armed bad guys, community leaders might justifiably decide to forego the bullet-proof vests and the AK47s. Some communities might decide to issue bullet proof vests and AK47s to their public school teachers.

Sometimes corporate enforcement of safety measures violates the liberty of its workers. Suppose a construction worker prefers to not wear a hard hat on the job, even though it substantially reduces the risk of head injuries. Should the company force him/her to wear that hard hat? Should policemen be forced to carry guns? Should college professors be forced to wear bullet proof vests? Self-interested utilitarian companies have no moral qualms with forcing employees to abide by health and safety standards. The liberty of its workers is always secondary to the "greatest happiness principle." They might deal with our risk-taking employee as follows: "Look! We spent thousands of dollars training you. If you get hurt on the job, it will hurt the company and we’ll have to train someone else to do your job. We won’t take that risk. Therefore, put on that damn hard hat or you’re fired!"

Paternalistic companies routinely violate the liberty principle in order to protect its workers from self-inflicted harm. They might say: "We realize that you would prefer not to spend $100 on a hard-hat, but it’s in your best interest to wear one. We’ll buy it for you. You wear it!" Of course, modern corporations must also deal with third-parties, especially insurance companies and paternalistic government regulators.

Libertarians, however, elevate personal self-interest over communal self-interest. They would simply require that companies warn workers of all known job-related risks and perhaps provide access to safety equipment. But in the end it is the worker alone that has the right to decide whether to use it or not. Of course, this means that if a worker suffers a head injury on the job because she didn’t wear her hard hat, she alone is responsible for the injury, not the company. The libertarian boss would, however, exercise his/her liberty and hire someone to replace our risk-taking, brain-damaged libertarian worker. Hence we have the classic moral tension between utilitarian policies which violate the liberty of individual workers by forcing them to work safely in order to promote the "greatest good," and, liberty-based policies which avoid force, protect the liberty of both employers and employees, but sometimes sacrifice utility in doing so.

Stockholder Theorists argue that workplace safety standards, like wages, ought to be market-based, voluntary and contractual: set by personal decisions forged between employers and employees based on market forces. If a company has unsafe working conditions, rationally self-interested workers will either demand higher wages or gravitate toward other jobs that offer better working conditions. Moreover, if a worker is injured at an unsafe workplace because he/she chooses dangerous work at higher compensation level, then that worker himself would be responsible for the injury and not the company or the government: unless he earlier chose to purchase workman’s compensation from another corporation.