The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics

The Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics says that you can have a particle spinning clockwise and counterclockwise at the same time – until you look at it, at which point it definitely becomes one or the other. The theory claims that observing reality fundamentally changes it.

The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics says that when you observe or interact with a problem in any way, you can be blamed for it. At the very least, you are to blame for not doing more. Even if you don’t make the problem worse, even if you make it slightly better, the ethical burden of the problem falls on you as soon as you observe it. In particular, if you interact with a problem and benefit from it, you are a complete monster. I don’t subscribe to this school of thought, but it seems pretty popular.

In 2010, New York randomly chose homeless applicants to participate in its Homebase program, and tracked those who were not allowed into the program as a control group. The program was helping as many people as it could, the only change was explicitly labeling a number of people it wasn’t helping as a “control group”. The response?

“They should immediately stop this experiment,” said the Manhattan borough president, Scott M. Stringer. “The city shouldn’t be making guinea pigs out of its most vulnerable.”

On March 11th, 2012, the vast majority of people did nothing to help homeless people. They were busy doing other things, many of them good and important things, but by and large not improving the well-being of homeless humans in any way. In particular, almost no one was doing anything for the homeless of Austin, Texas. BBH Labs was an exception – they outfitted 13 homeless volunteers with WiFi hotspots and asked them to offer WiFi to SXSW attendees in exchange for donations. In return, they would be paid $20 a day plus whatever attendees gave in donations. Each of these 13 volunteers chose this over all the other things they could have done that day, and benefited from it – not a vast improvement, but significantly more than the 0 improvement that they were getting from most people.

The response?

IT SOUNDS LIKE something out of a darkly satirical science-fiction dystopia. But it’s absolutely real — and a completely problematic treatment of a problem that otherwise probably wouldn’t be mentioned in any of the panels at South by Southwest Interactive.

There wouldn’t be any scathing editorials if BBH Labs had just chosen to do nothing – but they did something helpful-but-not-maximally-helpful, and thus are open to judgment.

There are times when it’s almost impossible to get a taxi – when there’s inclement weather, when a large event is getting out, or when it’s just a very busy day. Uber attempts to solve this problem by introducing surge pricing – charging more when demand outstrips supply. More money means more drivers willing to make the trip, means more rides available. Now instead of having no taxis at all, people can choose between an expensive taxi or no taxi at all – a marginal improvement. Needless to say, Uber has been repeatedly lambasted for doing something instead of leaving the even-worse status quo the way it was.

Gender inequality is a persistent, if hard to quantify, problem. Last year I blogged about how amoral agents could save money and drive the wage gap down to 0 by offering slightly less-sexist wages – while including some caveats about how it was probably unrealistic and we wouldn’t see anything like that in reality. So of course less than a week after I wrote that Evan Thornley says :

“There’s a great arbitrage there, we would give [women] more responsibility and a greater share of the rewards than they were likely to get anywhere else and that was still often relatively cheap to someone less good of a different gender.”

While Mr Thornley said he wasn’t advocating that the gender pay gap should be perpetuated, he said it provided “an opportunity for forward thinking people”.

A number of online commentators, as well as Australian start-up blogs, have since said Mr Thornley’s comments were sexist.

Mr. Thornley improved on the status quo – but in the process he interacted the problem and was thus caught up in it. This is a strategy which, if widely embraced, would practically eliminate many forms of wage discrimination overnight simply by harnessing something we have way too much of already: greed. So of course it was denounced.

Last year the city of Detroit began to crack down on unpaid water bills, and thousands of poor people suddenly faced the prospect of having their water shut off. The vast majority of people did nothing to help them whatsoever. PETA did offer conditional help: If a family went vegan for 30 days, PETA would pay off their water bill, and throw in a basket of vegan food to boot. This was strictly more helpful than what 99.99999% of humanity was doing for Detroit residents at the time, as it didn’t make anything worse and offered a trade for anyone who valued 30 days of not-being-vegan less than however much they owed on their water bill. For marginally improving he situation instead of ignoring it, they were denounced as “the worst”.

Peter Singer has a famous thought experiment about a child drowning in a pond. I’ll let Philosophy Bro explain:

Like, let’s say I’m on my way to a bitchin’ party and I’m looking fly as shit and I smell good because you already know, and I’ve got a 30-rack of Natty because I’ll be goddamned if I show up empty-handed to the house I’m about to burn down. Once I get over this bridge, and turn the corner I’ve arrived and so has the party. Except I hear a bunch of splashing and I look over the bridge into the river and – fuck me – there’s a kid flailing around and calling for help, like he’s drowning for some reason instead of handling his shit like an adult.

I should save his life, right?

Sometimes in philosophy we like to ask obvious questions and waggle our eyebrows suggestively, like maybe you don’t exist after all, hmm? but bro, this is not one of those times. I should obviously jump in and SAVE THIS FUCKING CHILD’S LIFE. So I ruin a Polo and I don’t smell good anymore and a couple of the beers explode because I dropped them. Who gives a shit, right? A child was going to die.


What if I told you that for $5, you could buy a life-saving vaccine for a child? Sure, he’s far away, but we already agreed: who gives a shit, right? It’ll still save his life, and it only costs you not having a fifth drink at the bar on a Thursday. Remember that $300 bar receipt you posted with the caption “just another Thursday night wearing matching plaid with my bros, we’re special and impressive and are the ACTUAL six dudes with the biggest dicks, unlike all you OTHER overconfidences of bros who think that, well guess what, it’s us?” What you were really saying was “I routinely pass up the chance to save two dozen lives with science so that I can black out and pretend that I like myself for a night.” That’s fucked up, bro.

The difference is that the drowning child has been definitively noticed, and thus her moral weight bears down on us and we have to save her. But children thousands of miles away? Not noticed!

I think this might be where a lot of the discomfort with talking about things we can do to alleviate suffering comes from. If you implicitly believe in the Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics, then to confront the scope of suffering in the world is to make it your fault, and then if you don’t throw everything you have at the problem you’re as “bad” as PETA or Mr. Thornley or Uber or BBH Labs.

But what if – what if noticing a problem didn’t make it any worse? What if we could act on a problem and not feel horrible for making it just a little better, even if it was an action that benefited ourselves as well? What if we said that in these instances, these groups weren’t evil – it’s okay to notice a problem and only make it a little bit better. If everyone did that, the world would be a vastly better place. If everyone “exploited” opportunities where they could benefit and alleviate people’s suffering at the same time, we’d all be better off.

67 thoughts on “The Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics

  1. The example with physics focuses on change. The example with ethics does not focus on change itself – but rather on a possible (not necessary if you don’t attribute and don’t care who gets the credit) byproduct of change – the feedback/blame of the society.

    The “what if’s” at the end are.. well there’s no strong hypothesis here. What if people would not steal – how our world would look like, what would it be? It’s not really a valuable thing – to put those hypothetical ideal world “what if” social change assumptions without trying to do some thinking through, root cause analysis, maybe?

    I think that “blame” described here (through a series of good examples and in a well-written way, thank you!) would still not make it into a Top 20 list of things that would be so good to change if you could actually effectively execute social change on a large scale. And quite likely some other things fixed would eliminate this pattern before you ever got to it.

    But there’s no good way to do social change.

    Changing social constructs inside just one adult person – is very, very hard and expensive, non-scalable way. Prevention could be done for future generations (and is far less expensive) – but education system and our culture resists it – in a Stockholm syndrome-alike way, that was probably evolutionarily beneficial some thousands of years ago, and that we won’t drop, even though it’s clearly outdated.

    So we would be better off, for sure, but it won’t just drop on us like and we’ll have to figure out incrementally less broken ways of fixing it and it would be so nice to see your perspective on what such ways could be possible here and how those would work.

    1. I found the article, in essence, promotes an utilitarian way of justifying actions – If an action with good intension didn’t make the problem worse, even make it slightly better, they should not be opted for judgements.

      I found this argument troubling and dangerous because not “all” actions could be justified by calculated sum of the utility value that the action provides. People rise judgement not because the acts are not maximally helpful, nor that the actors are doing it for their own benefit, people rise judgement against some actions because they seems to corrupt some fundamental moral/human values which we believe in, and sometimes these damage could not be justified even though the “utility value” these acts provide are positive. We have to ask ourselves, is it worth to compromise the one value (human value) for the other (utility values)? In some case, yes, but in some case, no. (I personally don’t oppose the cases (BBH, PETA, Uber) in your article)

      Consider the cases of blood donation. Suppose we gave money to the blood donor to reward their act, hoping that by market mechanism, it will increases the incentive to blood donate. Everyone seems to be better off from this market scheme: donors (especially those who are in need of money) got their compensation, and the organization will receive more blood to save more lives. It seems to make situation little better for both sides.

      But problem with this scheme is that, it corrupts the fundamental human value lies in the act of blood donation: a sense of altruism toward the human community. By commoditizing this act, it corrupts and change its value. And in reality, people do response to such value corruption: In case of blood donation, UK’s system, which all blood donations are unpaid, outperforms US’s system, which blood donations are sometimes compensated by money. We cannot really rationalize this result because we are all human, and as humans, there are some values which we appreciate that could not be rationalized by utilitarian logics.

  2. As I see it, there are two different issues with the Copenhagen interpretation of ethics.

    The first is that human beings actually have a really arbitrary way of saying that X caused Y. Human beings usually jump to conclusions when taking about causation. For example – why is this family in Detroit having their power shut off? Is it because they didn’t pay the bill? Is it because the city announced this crackdown? Is it because of the economy? Strictly speaking, the answer is yes – *all* of these causes are necessary conditions for the family to lose power. But we tend to pick ONE of these causes (depending on our personal ethical beliefs) and call it *THE* reason.

    Especially if you consider things that people *didn’t* do, the causes become literally infinite. The family is having their power cut off because *you* didn’t give them $100, it’s getting cut off because Bill Gates didn’t give them $100, etc.

    So basically, this approach allows you to blame anything on anyone, and to absolve anyone of blame by simply pointing to a different cause.

    This, I think is the logical contradiction of utilitarian ethics. If you make the ethics of any act dependent on it’s consequence, your ethical actor needs to be able to predict the future.

    This is why I think “Virtue Ethics” is a much more workable (though very unpopular these days) approach to ethics. The ethical difference between saving a person who is drowning and donating $5 to charity isn’t caused by the consequence of the acts (saving a life), but rather by the virtue and character that each act represents. The person who saves drowning person practices bravery compassion and a sense of duty, while the person who walks away from that situation practices callousness, cowardice and selfishness. Whereas the choice of donating $5 or not to a charity tells us very little about a person’s character.

    I elaborate a bit more on this here:

    1. You don’t need to perfectly predict the future, just make your best guess and act accordingly. Consequentialism runs on expected value.

      Your example demonstrates that a lot of our language is just inadequate for thinking about the world in this way – nailing down exactly what “cause” means, for example. But the confusion is over our mental model of the world, not the state of the world itself. We don’t disagree about any facts, just how to apply the “cause” category we use in our internal representation. And we could have a long, philosophical discussion about what the word “cause” really means, or we could just say “you have a rough estimate for what the world looks like if you make these choices, which do you choose?”

      Understanding the world in those terms is cognitively difficult to deal with, because my brain was built for dealing with a society of about 150 people who I knew and personally cared for, not 7 billion people living a kaleidoscope of experiences that I cannot hope to comprehend. I’m a flawed creature, basically what you’d expect of a clever chimp who accidentally caught a case of ethics.

      And it does mean acknowledging that I’m not doing as much good as I could. I am very, very, very far from a utility maximizer. All humans are. I’m also way, way slower than the fastest humans alive, and they’re in turn way, way, way, way, way slower than the speed of light, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run when we want to go fast – and not being perfect utility maximizers doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to make our best guesses about consequences when trying to do good.

    2. If we’re trying to determine who to pat on the back and call a good person, who to invite to our parties, share our thoughts with, generally move up the friendship continuum, then sure, virtue ethics makes sense, and I think that’s what most of us already do. Peter Singer is fully aware that nobody’s gonna think he’s a great person, or even a slightly decent one, if in addition to the many thousands of children he saves with donations and activism, he rapes and murders one unwanted orphan; I’m sure even he himself would find it impossible to like himself if he were to realize that he had somehow done that. But I think that utilitarianism is about something distinct from what earns us all little gold stars for being awesome people. It’s about an **separate sphere of motivation** (wanting to know that you’ve done the most objective good) that manages to ground itself in different aspects of the awesome-guy (virtue ethics) system for different people: some people manage to act in a more utilitarian way because they learn to project their empathy, others because their awesome-guy system values rationality, still others (probably the most) because a particular utilitarian notion (like veganism) has caught on as the cool thing in their social sphere.

    3. Just wanted to second what jai said and stress it: consequentialism runs on expected value.
      Specifically: with consequentialism, when talking about whether someone is a good person, we still talk about what sort of person they are, which is something all ethical systems share. It’s just that we determine which traits- which virtues- are good or bad depending on the *probable* consequences of those actions.

      I just thought this needed seconding because I’ve seen this critique before and… to be honest, it’s possibly the strangest critique of (or more accurately, confusion about) consequentialism I”ve seen. I think maybe it’s the result of approaching ethics from a different direction; I have a feeling most consequentialists think about “how should I act in edge cases where my moral intuitions are unclear?”, whereas it sounds like this results from coming at it from a discussion of different systems of moral philosophy where you’re trying to figure out what each moral philosophy system says.

  3. One objection I can come up with to the trade-based form of this argument is: taking advantage of inequality to make a profit by dealing with the disadvantaged does ameliorate the effects of that inequality, but it also creates an incentive to perpetuate that inequality so that the profit opportunity persists. Letting people make money by using homeless people as cheap labor might eventually create a class of firms with attendant lobbying budgets who benefit from the existence of homeless people, and that could be worse than the current state of affairs.

    But that objection could just as well apply to any other kind of labor, yet the more-exploited parts of the Third World keep seeing average wages rising and rising, to the point that manufacturers are having to go even further afield to find cheap labor.

    1. Not just labor, but any kind of voluntary transaction. Doctors benefit when people are sick, which might lead to an evil cabal of doctors scheming to unleash new diseases all the time – so we’d better start taking a hard line against those stethoscoped thugs before it’s too late.

      1. People claim that something pretty similar is happening in the private prison industry. Although the prison industry’s “served” population aren’t being traded with, the prison industry allegedly lobbies for laws that will increase its “customer base”.

        1. Yeah, that’s genuinely a case where incentives and influence might actually line up to encourage hurting people. I haven’t researched it much yet, but I notice that I’m confused about how the economics are supposed to work:

          I imagine I’m running an evil private prison. Paying a free person $10/hour for a year of labor is $20,000 – that’s an approximate upper limit on the value of the labor I can expect to extract from my prisoner-slaves. Incarcerating someone for a year costs about $50,000 (, and they’re probably going to do a worse job than the $10/hour free employee. So to get the whole thing to work I need to get the state to pay at least $30,000 a year per prisoner. That means that to get extra prisoners, my influence has to be worth more to the state than the $30,000 x however-many-extra-people-they-needlessly-lock-up. And that influence is going to have to cover a lot of parties if I’m going to make any money off it – to get someone from freedom to my slave prison, I need law enforcement, prosecutors, and whoever-makes-decisions-about-prisoner-assignments-and-private-prison-contracting in my pocket.

          I’m pessimistic enough about the United States that I can believe something like this is happening somehow, but I’m skeptical on economic priors.

          Possible failure modes, incomplete list:
          – private prisons are way cheaper than state prisons (why?)
          – the prison can reliably extract more than $20,000 of labor from prisoners (how?)
          – person(s) who makes decisions about paying private prisons is corrupt/easy-to-manipulate
          – state is overflowing with prisoners already (this actually seems likely)

          1. I think your model granularity is too course. Try replacing “the state” with a more detailed model, e.g. something like {voters, politicians, {legislative branch, executive branch, judicial branch}}, and consider that each of these has some ability to force the moves of some of the others. This ability is (to a limited extent) transitive. For example, politicians can cause voters to punish other politicians for being “soft on crime,” the legislative branch can make laws that require the judicial branch to executive branch to imprison people, etc.

            In general, it’s much easier to convince X to take action A when the costs will be born by some distant third party Y. With that in mind, it seems plausible for the system to favor a growing prison population even if the prisoners did nothing of any value (assuming the prisons were paid at least slightly more than it cost to keep them).

            If you want to be really cynical, you might want to consider what you would expect to happen if the voters were divisible into factions and you posit a mechanism that allows for some covert (but effective) mechanism to bias the system to imprison some types of voters more than others.

          2. > – private prisons are way cheaper than state prisons (why?)

            Largely because private prisons *generally* use non-government prison guards (thus retirement benefits are 401k rather than pensions, and the employees are cheaper over time) and because the private prisons are built with private contractors contracting to a private company, not contractors used to sucking off the government teat.


          3. Some quibbles:
            Paying a free person $10/hour for a year of labor is $20,000

            The actual cost to the employer is somewhere around 50% to 100% higher, so the maximum value you can be expected to extract is closer to $30,000 to $40,000.

            However, that said, the cost of lobbying for harsher criminal penalties isn’t very high, as there’s already a substantial segment of the population who support that already.

            Influencing politicians generally does not involve a cost-benefit tradeoff for the state – a politician listening to a lobbyist doesn’t care if the proposal costs the state money, he cares if the proposal will help him be re-elected. There comes a point where “getting criminals off the street” will conflict with “don’t raise taxes too much” (and that tradeoff point will vary a lot depending on who votes for the particular politician), but that’s the tradeoff the politician makes when listening to the lobbyist.

      2. I think part of the anger trigger for this is whether we think of the people who are trying to help as “social” or “selfish”. Doctors get a _lot_ of trust credit. Big corporations don’t. Nonprofits do. Etc.

        It’s not as stupid as it sounds.

    2. Markets don’t work that way. Let’s say person X is oppressed by some condition. I see that oppression and off to help them overcome it at a profit to myself. That looks like it gives me an incentive to perpetuate the oppression, right?

      No. The trouble is that while I’m making a profit, somebody else is scheming to take that profit away from me by offering to help reduce the oppression further.

      So, women make 73% of men? Great! I love it! I’ll fire all my men employees, hire women employees at 90% of their salaries! By offering 17% more, I’ll be able to poach the best employees, I’ll end up with a better workforce then I have now, AND I’ll earn 10% profit on every woman I hire! Ka-ching! Plus, I’ll make sure that women stay oppressed so I can do this forever!

      Does anybody think it’s even a little bit possible? No, of course not. Because while I’m offering 17%, someone else is offering 20% and accepting 7% profit. And someone is scheming against both of us by offering 25% and accepting 2% profit. Somebody is scheming against *them* to get the best employees by offering women to pay them exactly the same as men, and thus having a superior work force and out-competing everyone else in the market.

      Or maybe that’s already happening, and the 73% of men’s wages is simply bullshit, and when you compare job against job, experience against experience, maternity leave vs. paternity leave, women get paid the same as men.

  4. Almost 170 years ago, there was a pretty well-known famine in Ireland. Even though food was still grown and exported, most couldn’t afford it, and potatoes — the only food they could afford — rotted in the fields. At that time, the British Empire ruled Ireland, and their belief in laissez-faire economics convinced many in the government that preventing famine was an illicit intervention in the market.

    There were many private offers of aid, though. Some of them were evangelical Protestant missionaries who offered food to Catholic families, on the condition that they convert to being Protestant. And, though, many in Ireland were devout Catholics, once parents see their own children starving to death it’s difficult not to consider the offer, even if it meant ostracism from their own communities.

    Even 170 years later, those Protestant missionaries are still hated in Ireland. I’m not sure the OP would understand or approve of the hatred, though, since after all they did “offer conditional help”. On the other hand, most people seem to have a strong ethical line between offering help in a tragic situation and taking advantage of it. Uber, BBH Labs and especially PETA were all on the wrong side of that line

    1. I can definitely understand the feeling of resentment – it’s a taboo tradeoff (….pdf). Humans, including me, tend to get upset when we’re asked to choose between things we regard as priceless (our children’s lives and religion in this example).

      I’m actually really sympathetic to this case in particular – when I was a child, I was forced to profess religious beliefs that I did not believe in. It is not an experience I would wish on anyone, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as I imagine watching my family starve would be.

      But while understanding and sympathizing with that anger, I still vastly prefer a world in which people can trade religious beliefs for food to a world in which people starve without recourse. They’re both bad, but one is far worse than the other. And consider what would happen if everyone adopted the approach of the Irish missionaries – every ideological group anxious for adherents and with resources to spare would race to make better offers. That’s a dynamic I want to encourage, especially when the alternative is *starvation without recourse*.

  5. I think part of what is happening is that a bad situation builds a kind of “pressure” of “we should really do something about this”. Eventually, when the suffering becomes great enough, a charitable intervention supposedly occurs. When you partially ameliorate the suffering in question, however, you basically “steal” from this future charitable intervention – you reduce the weight of the situation in a way that you profit from, effectively reducing the amount of charity it will receive.

    Imagine you are a really _really_ lazy person, and you break your leg. You need to go to the doctor to get it set and plastered, and the pain is almost bad enough to motivate you to do this. Then somebody comes by and starts regularly selling you morphine for ten bucks.

    Objectively, you are now better off. But from the point of view of a constrained decisionmaker, that person just removed all hope of ever getting around to seeing a doctor, and profited off it to boot. One can see why you might get angry at them and start yelling to please stop helping you.

    I think something similar might be happening in some of the examples.

      1. There are many different cases; some of them are clear-cut, some are not, some are the other way. You found an especially clear-cut one. Good job.

        I never claimed my description applied to every case.

        1. I’d like to apologize for my knee-jerk reply; it’s a good point, but one I see applied constantly in situations where it doesn’t make any sense.

  6. Another example: a little mail-order marijuana-of-the-month business gets posted to HN ( ). A nice idea, helps normalize marijuana, provides voluntary participants with a useful service, thereby undermining the War on Drugs, etc.

    One commenter says:

    > I just can’t see myself supporting marijuana startups unless they are doing something about the millions of people who are locked up nationwide for sale or possession. It’s great you saw and opportunity to make some money but people’s lives have been destroyed before we got to the point you could stroll in and make an easy buck.

    Yes, that’s right. No matter what marijuana business you are, no matter that you’re helping, because you are not *right this instant* trying to free *millions of people* even in states where marijuana is *still* illegal, this commenter disapproves of you and refuses to buy from you or even say anything nice about you.

  7. Do you feel that these things are ok? Or are you reasoning against your instincts?

    My visceral sense that exploitation is wrong is strong enough that I want any ethical logic to capture it; if a given ethical system says exploitation is ok I would view that as a flaw in the system, not in my judgement.

    1. That’s exactly the point of this article. The gut reaction that every ethical viewpoint that allows exploitation is wrong might lead to worse outcomes for everyone with zero benefit. It’s like a vegetarian choosing to starve to death rather than eat meat that would just spoil anyway.

    2. My personal two cents: I have an intuition that exploitation is wrong, and I *also* have an intuition that morality ought to be about what hurts or helps other people. I further have an intuition that the latter intuition is what morality is about and thus trumps my other intuitions.
      Based that, I reason that my prior intuition is wrong in cases where exploitation doesn’t actually hurt anyone. Although at this point I’ve gotten used to that reasoning to the point that I don’t find it such a mental strain anymore with examples like this, although I still do feel conflicted about, for example, Souperism, which is technically the same thing.

  8. Virtue Ethics seems to come closest to how people operate. The difficulty is that with fallible human beings (I can’t speak for the other sort) it is so easily confused with “How do I feel about myself?” and “What would other people say?”.

    Those trying to be or seem virtuous are sorely tempted to deflect attention to those less virtuous than themselves, and do not always resist that temptation.

    I’m a Consequentialist myself, but it’s no way to make friends.

  9. If you would like an excellent example of this, publicly agree with about 95% of feminism. (Warning: may cost you your career.)

  10. You cite Uber’s surge pricing, but the only statistical research into the matter has shown that all that happens is that drivers chase the surges around and starve lower-priced areas; the overall number of Uber drivers in a region stays the same regardless of overall average prices.

    1. Can you link your source on this? I’m interested.

      (Moving drivers around to where people need them more is still an improvement over not doing that, IMHO)

  11. Good post. However, it’s not the whole story. The same kind of argument could be used to support sub-minimum wages, organ selling, and many other practices that, although marginally beneficial in individual instances, would arguably lead to a lower-utility society if tolerated wholesale.

    To put it another way, “Half a loaf is better than none” is not always the best principle for organizing a society. Sometimes it’s better to hold people to a high standard as a condition of playing at all. That is why people are inclined to play against their short-term interests in the Ultimatum Game. It’s why I protested an unreasonable price for passport photos the other day by going elsewhere, even though the actual cost savings didn’t come close to compensating the value of my time. And it’s why some people want to put BBH, PETA, war profiteers, etc. in the doghouse.

    Isn’t this the difference between naive utilitarianism / situational ethics and rule-based utilitarianism?

    1. It seems to me that the central takeaway is that you should actually need to argue that a given practice would result in reduced utility and explain a mechanism by which it would do so. For example, “allowing people to profit off of misery gives them an incentive to perpetuate misery, so practicing medicine should be outlawed since doctors have an incentive to make more sick people”.

      With the moral attitude outlined here, you don’t need to do that, you just point out that a problem exists and the person involved is automatically responsible.
      It’s clearest in the first example, I think- the city wasn’t in any way profiting off of the people and was in fact providing them with assistance. I think that’s very clearly not an example of a Chesterton’s fence (a moral law which guards against some non-obvious consequence); it’s just an example of people’s moral reasoning going haywire in weird says.

      To be fair, the article *does* leave out mention of Chesterton’s fences, which are a genuine concern, and *that* is the difference between naive utilitarianism and rule-based utilitarianism. But it’s not actually arguing against utilitarianism; it’s arguing against a non-consequentialist intuition.

      1. Yes, I agree with you (and with the author) that it would be sloppy to discourage all incomplete repairs. My point was that it is *sometimes* worth doing so. Yes, arguments certainly need to be made on a case-by-case basis.

    2. Indeed, the argument supports sub-minimum wages. In fact, it supports the complete elimination of minimum wages, which would be a good thing.

      “would arguably lead to a lower-utility ” but you don’t make that argument, you just wave your hands at it. Well, I wave back, and have refuted your argument.

      “for organizing a society”. You mean for centrally-planning a society? Because societies will self-organize if you don’t use violence against the members. Central planning requires the use of guns.

      “I protested an unreasonable price … by going elsewhere”. You self-organized society because you recognized the benefit to others of punishing unreasonable pricers. Well done!

      1. Please: I took no position on minimum wage. Nor did I take a position on whether any punishment of low-wage employers should come from government force or from consumer boycotts.

        I observed that the original post seems to draw very broad conclusions from a utilitarian perspective plus a few cherry-picked examples. Its conclusions seem to silently dismiss a slew of *other* common utilitarian arguments (e.g., in favor of minimum wage).

        Those arguments might be wrong, but the author doesn’t even try to engage them. No, I haven’t recapitulated them here, because I suspect the author and most readers will already be familiar with this type of argument. I am interested to know what the author thinkss. When the author uses some examples as an intuition pump, it is reasonable for readers to respond with additional examples that force refinement of the intuitions.

        IN SHORT: Even if we share the author’s intuition that a controlled experiment on homeless people could be good, it doesn’t *follow* that we must share your intuition that minimum wages are always bad. Yet the original post seems to make this leap.

  12. Good blorg man, come on. I think some of your examples just don’t fit.

    For example, one of the concerns with Uber in Portland, OR is getting them to comply with laws that require them to have cars that can serve handicapped people. Suppose that Uber prices out the old Taxi industry here, which means better prices, but in return handicapped people have less access to Uber than they did to the now extinct taxi companies. That’s not an improvement to the status quo, it’s just a change.

    Here’s a situation that does fit:

    “I went into a war zone. There was a drought and difficulty getting water into the city, so they needed water. I sold bottled water at $100 an ounce, and the people who gave me their life savings were able to survive for a couple more days than they otherwise would have. And yet somehow people act like I’m a bad guy!”

    Or, hell, let’s get even more extreme:

    “I met this guy who was starving. He was going to die in the next couple of days. I told him I’d give him enough food to survive for a week if he let me crush every bone in his feet with a sledgehammer.

    And yet somehow people act like I’m the bad guy!”

    I mean, why would that be immoral? Now the guy’s in pain but with a survivable injury, rather than dead! It’s clearly a really moral action to crush his feet with a sledge hammer!

    Your reaction to that potato famine story is instructive.

    If the Irish Catholics had been capable of competing with those protestant missionaries, they would have. What, at the time, was stopping people from out-competing those protestants by offering a better deal, like free food or food at cost? What was stopping the Catholic church from offering more food to people who didn’t convert?

    Sure, maybe in your ideal world those Irish Catholics would’ve had more choices in what to them were false religions. Maybe some of them could become scientologists and hate that, rather than becoming protestants and hating it. Sounds like a real improvement!

    Part of the reason people dislike this kind of war profiteering is that the price extracted isn’t necessary to provide the service. It’s not clear how converting to the protestant religion helps get more food into Ireland. There’s a reason why going into a drought zone and selling water for $100 an ounce is frowned on more than selling it at cost.

    The idea is that people are entitled to a certain minimal level of dignity; for example, the ability to profess whichever religion they actually believe in. Removing that dignity, even when it is exchanged for another tangible good is seen by many, myself included, as immoral.

    And I think you’ll find that much of the stuff you linked to is working from this assumption. Look at the Peta situation; their ability to pay bills is not improved by improving the number of vegans in detroit.

    Morally, it’s not at all clear that forgoing your deeply held principles in order to survive is the same as “making a problem slightly better.”

    1. “What, at the time, was stopping people from out-competing those protestants by offering a better deal, like free food or food at cost? What was stopping the Catholic church from offering more food to people who didn’t convert?”

      First of all it wasn’t quite that blatant or that simple. Some places just provided food and education, some required conversion etc.

      The potato famine was the result of really, really stupid laws, absentee landlords and some extreme bigotry (at that point in history African slaves were preferred over Irish slaves because the Irish were lazy drunkards).

      See and

      Now, also remember that the Church Of England started because the Catholics wouldn’t let the King divorce his wife, and England became rather anti-catholic for a while. England and much of Northern Europe was protestant–they had shorter distances to ship the food in the 1840s/50s when much of it was by sail.

      So you have this period of time when the famine is in full force and one group has made it’s play. Word of the scope of the play has to reach Catholic authorities who can do something. They have to arrange this something and implement it, again over time.

      So “Time, Distance, Law” are the answers to your question.

    2. That description with examples “not required to provide the service” (like breaking the bones in a guy’s feet for enjoyment) actually makes a lot of sense, except most of the examples in the article itself were not that type of examples.

      As an example from within your own post, which was rather incongrous with the rest, there’s the “selling water at $100 an ounce instead of at cost” example: if $100 an ounce was the cheapest water on hand, then clearly, *they weren’t selling it at cost*. Based on that situation, we’d generally assume that something about the war zone- like the distance to the nearest water, or the danger of traveling in- made it so that nobody was willing to bring in water to sell at a lower price.

      But anyway, as to your actual point: The main point of the article is that in all of these examples, people aren’t being forced to give up their dignity, and anyone who chooses to can simply reject the offer and keep their dignity.
      I can honestly still see where there’d be a reasonable moral position against giving people that option, and forcing them to die instead- with the extreme examples of these types, I’m not comfortable with taking either side- but I think that’s a reasonable expression of the distinction.

  13. (I came here via SSC.)

    You aren’t really arguing with the so-called “Copenhagen Interpretation of Ethics”. Rather, you are arguing with the completely different notion that limited interventions are (or can be, I’m really not certain which you argue against) wrong.

    The notion that one’s moral duty is related to one’s knowledge is not new. For instance, look at how many legal distinctions hinge on knowingly doing something. It is not a radical idea that we not hold people responsible, or hold people differently responsible, for actions that they did not know would cause harm. (sidenote, yes, we do also put in place standards of reasonability; one ought to know that there is an increase in danger caused by driving drunk, even if one didn’t actually know that one would cause a fatal accident that particular night). Of course, the corollary to this is that noticing things can make one morally responsible for them. I think there are cases where this seems correct. It doesn’t seem absurd to suggest that we are better off in the world where people who notice a theft take some action against the perp, be it apprehending him or taking down the plates of a car. Of course, one can hardly be blamed for not catching a thief one didn’t notice.
    More importantly, only one of of the real-life cases you mentioned (NY Homebase) hinged on noticing while the rest hinged on action taken. The thing about Copenhagen was … well, I’m not sure. It certainly serves several unseemly purposes, but perhaps that was not your intent.

    What you seem to be actually arguing against is people with a different notion of what is and isn’t a bad effect. Reading only what you provide, I side with Uber, PETA, and NY, against BHH, and would need to read Mr. Thornley’s comments in their entirety to form an opinion on them, but based on what is provided and my experience with people who make such controversial statements I would guess I would oppose him. Again, NY is the only case where observation is what is happening (also presumably some small use of resources for data collection and evaluation, but I doubt the thrust of the objection was that those resources were being used poorly) while the rest are all based on other ethical points.
    PETA is taking advantage of coercive circumstances, but aren’t violating what I consider norms of good taste, other than by being PETA
    I see nothing wrong with surge pricing, per se. Especially not since standard taxi companies do exist. I don’t like the business model based on attempting to evade as many regulations as possible, and now that I think of it there may be some standardization of fares thing being evaded, but I don’t object to surge pricing per se. I suppose whether or not I side with them depends on whether or not I think they are, in this case, breaking the law.
    BHH is blatantly violating the law. [mostly standard argument for minimum wage]
    Mr Thornley I need to make some guesses about. In short, where both the law and most ethics accepted in the West seem to suggest a far better standard than what is being suggested, but what is being suggested is an improvement over what exists, the operative question seems to become what the suggestion is being weighed against, both implicitly and explicitly. Again, this has nothing to do with observation and everything to do with messy details.

    We could rehash the argument about minimum wage to argue the object level BBH labs case. We could argue the ethical position that PETA is so bad that denouncing them out of sheer reflex is a valid and good thing (or we could argue about coercive circumstances). This has very little to do with observation or you attributing a misapprehension of QM to your philosophical opposition, and doesn’t seem particularly novel or helpful.

  14. The PETA example was a poor one. It’s not that PETA was being called out for not doing everything they could — it’s that eating vegan without becoming malnourished is expensive, and would cost those people more than their water bills would. PETA was telling people “we’ll pay your water bill if you starve yourself”, but obfuscating that second part in a way that made it less obvious — in other words, taking advantage of ignorance in order to make the situation worse for everybody, with the exception of their own PR.

  15. I found the article, in essence, promotes an utilitarian way of justifying actions – If an action with good intension didn’t make the problem worse, even make it slightly better, they should not be opted for judgements.

    I found this argument troubling and dangerous because not “all” actions could be justified by calculated sum of the utility value that the action provides. People rise judgement not because the acts are not maximally helpful, nor that the actors are doing it for their own benefit, people rise judgement against some actions because they seems to corrupt some fundamental moral/human values which we believe in, and sometimes these damage could not be justified even though the “utility value” these acts provide are positive. We have to ask ourselves, is it worth to compromise the one value (human value) for the other (utility values)? In some case, yes, but in some case, no. (I personally don’t oppose the cases (BBH, PETA, Uber) in your article)

    Consider the cases of blood donation. Suppose we gave money to the blood donor to reward their act, hoping that by market mechanism, it will increases the incentive to blood donate. Everyone seems to be better off from this market scheme: donors (especially those who are in need of money) got their compensation, and the organization will receive more blood to save more lives. It seems to make situation little better for both sides.

    But problem with this scheme is that, it corrupts the fundamental human value lies in the act of blood donation: a sense of altruism toward the human community. By commoditizing this act, it corrupts and change its value. And in reality, people do response to such value corruption: In case of blood donation, UK’s system, which all blood donations are unpaid, outperforms US’s system, which blood donations are sometimes compensated by money. We cannot really rationalize this result because we are all human, and as humans, there are some values which we appreciate that could not be rationalized by utilitarian logics.

  16. I keep coming back to this idea even two years later. It fits real life so much better than everything I’ve read about ethics by professional philosophers. Do you have more literature on this? I can’t stop thinking about the implications of this idea.

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