Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Demandingness and Opt-in vs Opt-out sacrifices

I've long thought that we should understand moral demandingness in terms of mental rather than material burdens.  My willpower satisficing paper (soon to be updated!) previously tried motivating this by comparing a "doing demand" vs. an "allowing demand", where the former asked the agent to positively give up half their savings to effective charities, and the second merely asked the agent not to dodge a "Robin Hood" tax that would have the same effect.  The intended verdict is an intuition to the effect that the former request is "more demanding", because more psychologically difficult to comply with, despite being equally costly. But it was a messy case, with all sorts of potential confounders.  So I now think a better example for my purposes is to contrast similar "opt in" and "opt out" scenarios.  Consider:

Opt in: Your local credit union (following the results of a member referendum that you voted against) send all investors with savings accounts, including yourself, optional paperwork to fill out that -- should you choose to submit it -- will transfer half of your savings to effective charities (which can be expected to save several lives, without leaving you destitute).  Might you be morally required to do so?  How demanding would such a requirement be?

Opt out: Your local credit union (following the results of a member referendum that you voted against) send all investors with savings accounts, including yourself, notice that they will transfer half of your savings to effective charities (which can be expected to save several lives, without leaving you destitute), unless you file some paperwork to opt out of the scheme.  Might you be morally required to refrain from opting out?  How demanding would such a requirement be?

I want the main difference between the cases to be that "opting in" requires more willpower on your part than refraining from opting out does.  So we can further stipulate that you really hate paperwork, and the thought of filling out forms fills you with dread.  And although you'd rather keep the money yourself, you do feel some pull towards promoting the impartial good, so you're not horrified by the thought of losing half your savings to this end (even though you wouldn't go out of your way to bring it about).  Now, it's important to be clear about the verdict I'm aiming for with this pair of cases: I'm not committed to the claim that you're required to refrain from opting-out while not being required to opt in.  Rather, I'm just going for the comparative judgment that a requirement to opt-in seems more demanding than a requirement to refrain from opting out.

Does that verdict seem intuitively plausible to you?  Is there a better way to present or tweak the cases to bring out this intuition?  (E.g., does it also seem plausible that a requirement to opt in would be more demanding for an agent who really loathes paperwork than the same requirement would be for, say, a contented accountant?)  Suggestions welcome!


  1. This seems to me like a situation where the hypothetical is so far distant from the way things actually work that the results of the thought experiment don't tell us much. Even before we get to having to stipulate a fear of paperwork, credit unions just don't do the "opt out" sort of thing (and at least in the US I expect that it'd be highly illegal).

    Anyway, my sense is that I'd be more likely to make the donations in the "opt in" case than the "opt out" case--the "opt out" case seems coercive enough that I think it'd be worth resisting on principle. I think it's OK for financial institutions to distribute charitable donation forms, but that they shouldn't be in the business of seizing their members' accounts, even for a good cause and even with an opt-out.

    I do think that the mental burden model sounds promising! I just don't think that this hypothetical is a good way to get there.

    1. Yeah, it's difficult to get a good pair of cases. Perhaps the better move is that suggested in the concluding parenthetical, i.e. hold fixed the situation but vary the psychology of the agent and see how that alters our judgments of demandingness?

    2. Sounds good. The accountant case seems a bit fanciful, perhaps--what about donating blood when you are/aren't afraid of needles? Making phone calls for an effective charity when you do/don't like talking to strangers on the telephone? (The latter being something that strikes home for me on political campaigns.)

    3. Yeah, something along those lines would be simpler. (A minor complication is that the "dislike" factor is itself a minor hedonic cost, so would need to be compensated down the line to keep the cases equal in terms of their welfare effects. But that should be possible, I think.) Thanks for the suggestions!

  2. The situation is... messed up.

    I think a better option is the Amazon referral program. If you like, you can opt in to Amazon Smile and give a tiny bit of all your purchases to a charity that you choose. You can not opt-in, and nobody gets your referral dollars.

    Opting in takes proactive effort and work. You have to sign in and fill out some virtual paperwork to get it all set up.

    I think you could build a more productive example with this as the backbone. People are going to object to being robbed, which is we call it when someone takes your money without your permission, regardless of what they want to do with it.

  3. Look into Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely in which he raises the case of organ donation.

    In short, the US and many other countries have an opt-in system: check the box if you want to donate your organs after you die. The result is 10-25% participation, a waiting list for organs, people dying from the wait, expensive and only moderately effective advertising to try and convince people, as well as research into ethically questionable alternatives i.e. genetic engineering. Alternatively, some European countries have an opt-out question and there is 85-95% participation, no waiting list, and very few people dying for want of an organ.

    Which question is ethical: "After death, do you want to give an organ to another?" or "After death, do you not want to give an organ to another?" And which question is a moral dilemma?

    There are 100,000+ people in the U.S. on the waiting list and the majority of them will die. If 85% of Americans participated then the probability that your body would be used to give someone life is rare and if done then you have saved somebody despite being dead yourself.

    The slight difference in wording creates a profound difference in effect and in the assumptions of society. What is our social contract? In both cases the individual has the option to give or not give, yet the burden of willpower is reversed and what is seemingly a difficult and arduous moral question becomes a simple ethical response: why would I not want to help another? In the opt-out situation we are neither coerced nor incentivized to help another, the difference is the question assumes you are a good person and you will do the right thing: nothing. It makes the right choice the easy choice.


Visitors: check my comments policy first.
Non-Blogger users: If the comment form isn't working for you, email me your comment and I can post it on your behalf. (If your comment is too long, first try breaking it into two parts.)

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.