Thursday, September 13, 2007

Ego-Depletion and Moral Demands

Despite my consequentialism, I have a fairly lax view of our moral obligations. I don't think we're obliged to directly help the less fortunate, or anything like that. If someone lives a basically decent life, I'm not about to criticize them for failing to do more. (It'd be great if they did, but I don't think it's reasonable to expect or demand it.) If a moral theory implies otherwise, then I think that's a count against it. The "demandingness objection" is, I think, a fair one.

But it's important to be clear on precisely what the complaint is against. It is not that large costs are being imposed on the wealthy, or anything so object-centered as that. (There's nothing inviolate about the advantages held by the most fortunate, and nothing intrinsically problematic about redistributing these advantages.) Systematic redistribution is just fine. What's problematic, to my mind, is the very act of demanding action from another, and the psychological burden this imposes.

Humans have limited executive cognitive control or 'willpower' (cf. the psychological literature on ego-depletion). Decision-making and conscious action is draining. It's hard work. The immediate concerns of everyday life can be burdensome enough without adding all the world's ills to one's plate. Again, so long as one is leading a basically decent life, it just doesn't seem reasonable to condemn them or demand that they attend to more pressing concerns elsewhere. Most people have more than enough to attend to already!

It's worth noting the contingency of this concern. If we can make it cognitively easier for people to do good, then we could reasonably expect more from them. Habitual behaviours are less demanding, for example. Best of all would be to free them of the burden entirely: replace opt-in schemes with opt-out ones, automate charitable redistribution via taxation, etc. Don't demand, just take. (Liberty concerns may be mitigated by the opportunity to exercise one's agency in the deliberative-democratic processes behind this policy decision.)

My account of the demandingness objection thus leads to the rejection of Liam Murphy's constraint against imposing unrequired sacrifice. Brian Berkey introduces it:
The intuitive idea behind such a constraint is that if a person is not herself required to make a sacrifice, then it would be inappropriate for others to force her to make it.

This only makes sense on an object-centered view of demands. On my psyche-centered version, we see that it is less burdensome to dispose of another's material holdings appropriately than to demand that they do so themselves. The latter involves both material sacrifice and ego-depletion. If you can instead find your way to my wallet without bothering my mind, then that's just fine. (Unless you're acting within a context where this would qualify as 'theft', of course.)

11 comments:

  1. "it just doesn't seem reasonable to [...] demand that they attend to more pressing concerns elsewhere. Most people have more than enough to attend to already!"

    Most people may well have more than enough to do already. However, this can only justify a lack of philanthropy if the things that they have to do ought to have priority over philanthropy. And, it seems, this is precisely what consequentialism commits you to rejecting.

    Could I ask you to elaborate your defence of the demandingness objection?

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  2. "this can only justify a lack of philanthropy if the things that they have to do ought to have priority over philanthropy."

    No, that assumes an obligation to maximize. I don't think our typical activities are necessarily better* than philanthropy (as 'priority' implies), but merely that they are good enough.

    * = (though I hope to look at this more in my next post.)

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  3. You might be interested in this transcript of a presentation I gave to the International Humanist and Ethical Union.
    http://www.acceleratingfuture.com/people-blog/?p=42

    By the way, it seems to me that you are flirting here with the original conception of Virtue Ethics as presented by Aristotle (though with modern virtues of course).

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  4. Why are philosophers so interested in this problem? Because they know they should and could do more to alleviate the plight of the poor. Instead, though, they seek rhetorical ways to alleviate themselves of responsibility.

    I do like your point: Because habitual behaviors are less demanding than cognitive decision-making, we can reasonably demand more of people. So, as you say, "replace opt-in schemes with opt-out ones, automate charitable redistribution via taxation, etc."

    So, for example, the US could implement an opt-out consent for organ donation, as much of Europe has already done. And instead of depending on people to CHOOSE to drive (more) environmentally friendly cars, we'd raise fuel emission standards. As for giving money, people should allocate a lump sum all at once (thus reducing the cognitive strain of deciding whether to give each time), and then distribute the amount to various charities over the course of the year. All this goes to show that so long as there are structural solutions to the problem of demandingness, to cry "oh, it's too psychological burdensome!" isn't all that convincing. I think you're headed in this direction already, though I'm not sure.

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  5. "On my psyche-centered version, we see that it is less burdensome to dispose of another's material holdings appropriately than to demand that they do so themselves."

    So is there any reason not to allow people to voluntarily opt out of whatever part of taxation you think is justified by this argument, perhaps conditional on them giving the same amount to charities? I would feel better about your reasoning if there weren't strong evidence that a marginal rationally-donated dollar could do orders of magnitude more good than a marginal dollar spent by the government.

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  6. Richard,

    I must have a different intuition.

    Suppose, as you and I both believe, that it is good to give money to starving people.

    Would you prefer to give that money to starving people, or have that money taken from you and then given to starving people.

    I strongly prefer the prior. And the starving people have no preference between the two, so long as the sum they receive is the same. So, it seems to me, that opt-out schemes rather than opt-in schemes harm me but don't help anyone. How is this better?

    And one other question: suppose that you could fulfill much of what is required by DEMANDING in, say, five minutes per year. All you had to do was fill out and sign a single check, and place it in the envelope. Would we then be obligated to devote those five minutes? The problem, I hope you see, is that you actually can fulfill much of what is required by DEMANDING in five minutes.

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  7. Jack - "Would you prefer to give that money to starving people, or have that money taken from you and then given to starving people?"

    It depends how much hassle is implicit in the former. Perhaps this is idiosyncratic, but I'd rather free my personal life from as many mundane decisions and stresses as possible. My utilitarianism is thus more of a political ideal -- I would happily agitate for greater developmental aid in a public/democratic forum, vote for and happily pay the higher taxes that result; but I would prefer that once I leave the Town Hall, I could focus exclusively on my personal projects.

    That would be ideal. Still, in the absence of an adequate political system, maybe we are obliged to sign that check from home. (But for how much? And who to? It's a pretty big decision, so would not necessarily be as easy as you make it sound by focusing on the resultant physical action.) It would be nice if one could simply tick a box when opening a bank account, that would automatically transfer 10% of all future deposits to Oxfam, or whatever. Ticking a box is not so demanding ;-)

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  8. Steven - the conditional option sounds fine to me. (Though I would hope that democratic deliberation and oversight would lead to more effective gov't spending.)

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  9. In any plausible (human) political system, including democratic ones, there will be a significant number of people who are better than their government at identifying the most important things that remain to be done as well as at spending their money to achieve the best consequences. Democracy isn't going to bail those people out from their moral dilemmas.

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  10. I think the reason we don't demand others or typically ourselves to help the less fortunate is simply that because so few do do this, we have low standards. If we lived in a society where almost everyone worked hard at alleviating poverty, we would be a lot more demanding towards others. Morality works by encouraging those of above average morality to be more moral, but only really applying societal pressure to those less moral than average.

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  11. Yes, you're quite right on priority and maximisation, I apologise.

    "It would be nice if one could simply tick a box when opening a bank account, that would automatically transfer 10% of all future deposits to Oxfam, or whatever."

    https://www.oxfam.org.uk/donate/credit_cards/index.html
    I'm sure there are other variations on this.

    Alex

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