Consumption vs utility
Thinking further about what I wrote about Sumner, it strikes me that he might argue that though one can derive utility from ownership, it's not consumption because the good is not degraded in any way.

Firstly, I don't think this is true. Compare to books and information. In fact Sumner explicitly talks about people consuming their houses, which suffer only minimal or zero degradation. So perhaps I'm wrong and he wouldn't even make the argument.

But I was wondering about the distinction. Firstly there is a quantitative issue. In the past the economy was mostly agriculture, it produced food, and the food was literally consumed. I assume that's where we get the word from. Today, the economy is mostly not agriculture. A large volume of traded goods are not consumed. But in fact the main thing traded is services, which is a funny combination. A service is skill+time, and the time is destroyed in the provision of service, while the skill is not.

In a market, the value of something is the price negotiated for it, so it seems like there's no difference in value between destructive and non-destructive consumption... I dunno. Scarcity, plenty, consumption, utility... and all I think is that we have to wait for the technofix. Is that wrong? 

Eric Schwitzgebel has a great post up about what moral philosophy is for:

I just wanted to think about one issue in it. He writes as though there are basically two motivations for acting: one is self-interest, the other morality. He doesn't make this claim explicitly, but that basic picture seems to inform the post.

I was just wondering if that's true. What other kinds of motivations for action could there be?

Well, there could be emotional reasons: I could lash out in anger, even though it's neither moral nor in my rational self interest. I could act out of love, even though the object of my affections is obviously uninterested.

There are reasons of expediency: Along the way to fulfilling another aim, I could do something that is not motivated by any basic cause. For example, let's say I want to be altruistic for moral reasons, so I go and spend time researching the best way to give money. You can call this a moral action, because it is part of a moral action, but there might be a lot of little actions in the middle which are purely expedient or functional on the way to the moral goal. I might buy a Peter Singer book, for example, not because I want it or because buying the book is good in itself, but because it helps me along the way to my goal.

Could there be motivations which are rational, but neither self-interested nor moral? I suppose there could... how about aesthetics and truth? Could I plausibly deny that beauty is moral, and yet still pursue it rationally? I'm not sure what that would mean. What about truth? A scientist might deny that truth is moral, but if so is he just doing his job for the money? Emotional satisfaction? I'm not sure these are possible. I think if you rationally pursue a goal, then it's normative, and so we'd call it moral.

What about doing things for other people? When it's strangers, that's probably morality, isn't it? If it's family, then I guess it's emotional or some extended definition of self-interest.

So, this ends up being quite interesting. If this is right, then "moral" is more about "non-self-interest" than anything else. But philosophers don't generally think of it like that. Has that introduced systematic biases into moral philosophy?

Consumption and growth
Another area of disagreement with Sumner:

He says: "5. Misers are more altruistic than big spenders."

But this has got to be wrong. Modern economies in the west are consumption-driven. Indeed, they have to be consumption-driven. Why else would production happen?! He doesn't define misers, but they are presumably people who spend less than they earn. Generalise it out: if everyone spent less than they earned, the economy would shrink (er, I think... not 100% certain on this, but as a first approximation, I think it holds). So how are misers supposed to be the good guys?

Big spenders, on the other hand, spend more than they earn. They consume, causing others to produce, and drive economic growth. These guys are the goodies, not the misers. Now, generalise them out: if everyone spends more than they earn, what happens? Well, credit happens, which is usually a good thing. But ultimately the country's debt will increase. That seems to be OK: if the debt increases no more than GDP growth, then you just end up with a stable level of debt, and recent economic history says that that's fine. Problems occur when debt increases relative to the size of the economy, not when it increases absolutely. So some big spending is allowed.

On the macroeconomic level, Sumner's (5) seems just flat wrong. I think he gets it from the microeconomic level, where he is saying that misers leave resources for others to use. But that doesn't seem right, either. I mean, Scrooge doesn't leave resources for Bob Cratchit to use. He hoards.

One final point on this. I suspect that Sumner has a different view of consumption to me. I'm not certain about this, but I view a lot of consumption as forced. It is forced on us by advertising and social pressure of various kinds. My wife puts snail goop on her face. I eat fruit from Mexico. Neither of these things are natural or particularly conducive to our well-being. But we do it because we're as dumb as everyone else.

But this kind of forced culture of consumption may be making our world a better place. That's what capitalism+consumerism magazine tells me. So I'll go along with it for the time being.

I'm not sure Sumner believes this. I think he thinks that all consumption is good and righteous - or rather, that it's all equivalent on the economic level. But the point is that consumption drives production. So if we consume certain kinds of stuff, we will then produce that stuff. If we consume other stuff, we will produce other stuff. If my wife consumes snail goop, people in the world will spend their lives farming snails and extracting the goop. That to me seems like a bad choice. It's bad for them (number of snailophiliacs in the world can't be high). It's bad for her, because in reality snail goop does nothing for her skin, and is only making her stupider.

Why tax capital
Sumner say it is inefficient to tax capital, so we should tax only consumption.
Let's assume the economics is right. There are still reasons not to accept the conclusion.

Ownership of capital is consumption. Imagine two people: one lives from paycheck to paycheck, has no savings and spends all of the 40,000 she makes in a year. The other is well-off, has a million in the bank, but is thrifty, and only happens to spend 40,000 in a year. Under the Sumner doctrine, they would pay about the same tax.

To me this seems pretty counterintuitive. One reason is that the rich woman seems to get some utility from her money in the form of security. As a corollary of this, she is less likely to need government services in future because of unemployment or homelessness, so a government investment in her now is less likely to bring the government savings in the future. So there are human efficiency conditions separate from economic efficiency.

There's also the question of fairness, though this is rather vexed. Does fairness mean the government should acknowledge the truth that one woman is poorer than the other, and give her more support? Or does it mean that the government should reward the thriftiness of the richer citizen? Given how difficult the fairness argument is, it might be better just to leave it out altogether at this stage, because I don't think the economic argument is finished yet, even if Sumner is right about the macroeconomics.

The point is, a) ownership of capital is utility; b) taxation is not just a macroeconomic tool, it is also a microeconomic transaction. 

A Rawls move in education
My brother has been writing about moral education, and to the extent that I have seen, his argument goes like this: schools should present morals to kids with good reasons, because anything else would be indoctrination. Those reasons should not be minority or exclusive reasons, like religious doctrine. Instead they should use the problem of sociality as the underlying problem which morality sets out to solve.

I like it. I think I've just argued myself around to the same way of thinking. I was thinking about Rawls and his move. Basically he aims to get buy-in from all people by setting limits on the state, giving people the room they want to manoeuvre, then he turns those limits into positive virtues and defining structures in his politics. If we can do the same thing in education, then that would be great. And Michael's argument might be doing just that.

He says, education can't trespass on certain grounds: it can't indoctrinate. But education has a need to do something - I think he has separate arguments for why moral education is desirable. Therefore we turn the limitation into a positive virtue: if a school is not to indoctrinate it must teach and persuade, or at the very least teach with reasons, and the reasons must be of the kind that can be accepted by everybody.

So even if a Christian would want to say that morality comes from God, they would have to admit that some aspects of morality are at least connected to the problems of coexistence in society. Therefore they can accept the teaching of that bit of morality, or the provision of those kinds of reasons for morality, and the God-related bits they can provide themselves.

Now if you're not a godless liberal like me, you might think that schools would thus end up teaching a rather impoverished morality, missing whatever bit you hold dear (God, Kantian imperatives, the Way). But that seems OK to me. These restrictions fall away at the school gate and at the age of 18, when kids can subject themselves to whatever brainwashing they want. But there is a bit of tension perhaps to be be resolved between arguments for teaching morality and arguments for excluding a lot of morality from the classroom. I'm not sure how to bridge that yet.

I wonder if it would be possible to create a nice image, akin to the veil of ignorance, with which to present this argument. That might make it more palatable.

What does it mean to be rich?
And pondering further: what does it mean for a culture to be rich?

We know what it is for an individual to be rich. But when is a civilisation rich? Does the ability to build the pyramids or the Taj Mahal make your country rich? I'd say not. You still have peasants dying of hunger and serfs working the fields.

The very definition of a rich country is one where the poorest people are rich. Where they can get healthcare, education and all the goods that they need. 

Plenty without self-interest?
So I was just looking at these two books:

and pondering. And I thought this:

One of the claims of the argument for capitalism is that self-interest motivates the production of goods. One of its points against non-capitalist systems is that they fail to motivate the production of goods, so no-one gets richer. One of the claims of the argument against capitalism is that greed is bad.

So, a couple of things. If it's capitalism and self-interest that make us richer, why did premodern capitalist societies not get rich? Smells like bullshit to me. What made us rich was the outrageous gains we got from tapping fossil fuel energy - though it is of course true that China has lots of coal, and the commies still ruined it. Worth bearing in mind.

More interesting than that, what if there were other motivations for producing lots of goods? Now, the commies tried it with slogans and hero workers. That didn't work. But couldn't there be others? I work 8 hours for money. But I work hard for me. Inventors and artists don't seem to work for the money so much. But factory workers clearly do. I guess the problem is that we're stuck in between the work-is-evil-that-must-be-compensated model and the do-what-you-love model. What could motivate someone to stand for 8 hours on a Foxconn line other than money, personal gain? But without Foxconn, we have no iPhone...

Is it to do with alienation? When you organise work on a massive scale - as you must to achieve big things - the individual worker is inevitably alienated from the objective of the work. They can only do a small detail. Thus it is very difficult to develop psychological/internal motivation for the work, so the motivation must be external. Hmm. I'm struggling to see how anything could replace money for this purpose. Perhaps that's a failure of my imagination, but there you go...

Another idea about how to start on naturalist ethics
Science started with commonsense observations, right? We look at the world around us and work out how all the bits of it fit together. We develop theories, test them, and accept or reject them. Sometimes our theories make us reject observations. E.g. the world looks flat to me, but I know it's not because that wouldn't make sense, given everything else I know. Also, importantly, I know how the illusion comes about: I know why the sphere I'm standing on looks flat to me, and that helps/allows me to discount that one particular observation without having to discount all my experiences.

Maybe all these ethical arguments are going the wrong way. The way to do ethics is not to try to jump in at the endpoint and say what ultimately grounds ethics. (That's like trying to say what the fundamental stuff of the universe is without doing the physics first. We know that doesn't work because it's been tried - atoms, miasmas, etc.) So the way to do ethics as a naturalist is to reject any speculation about what the grounding might be as unscientific, and to focus on the bottom-up process of observing ethics, developing theories about how it works, testing and then doing the zoom in/zoom out thing.

The problem is finding those empirical data. Are judgments data? I think we'd have to say they are, and I think that's OK. A lot of scientific observations aren't actually any better grounded (colours, invisible stuff, etc.) and that didn't seem to stop science. We can do the science of colour even though observations vary (e.g. colourblind people), and we managed to work out the reality that lies behind the colours we see (light wavelengths, rod cells in the eye). Moral judgments will vary, but it's not clear that that has to impede our progress.

Also, moral behaviour. We don't know exactly what moral behaviour is yet, but we can observe behaviour and start to develop ideas. One of the obvious things that we know from our experience is that moral judgments don't always match moral behaviour. That would be one of the first facts we know. Moral action and moral judgments would be studied in parallel, and their convergences and discrepancies observed and theorised.

Along the way we might discover things like: a particular realm of action is thought to be moral, but in fact if you analyse the behaviour, you find that people's [non-moral e.g. aesthetic] preferences completely explain their actions. Then you could make progress.

Alright, so how about I start? Self-data is a big thing. How about I try to keep a moral diary? I'll give it a go...

Godel follow up 2
Lots of people seem to think this is important, so...

Here's one way in which Godel could present a problem. One response would be to say that the Godel sentences are meaningless. But that would tie you into a theory of meaning, and the way the Godel sentences are constructed makes it at least very hard to write a theory of meaning which could exclude them but include all the other stuff you want.

But I'm not sure that is really important, because you shouldn't be imputing meaning to systems at all. Meaning requires two systems (e.g. the world and my ideas). Godel is about what happens in one system.

So, no, I'm still nowhere. I still can't see why Godel's important.

Follow up on Godel
So, the thing that Godel found is that your axioms and logic run into trouble at the point where you can construct a sentence that talks about both a thing and its superordinate set (I think!). Isn't that exactly what quantum waveform collapse is like? You have a particle in a probability field X, and then you entangle it with your apparatus, and at the end you try to read off something about both the particle and the apparatus - both the thing and the superordinate set with which it is at that moment entangled.

I think I don't know enough maths or physics even to be able to think about this!

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