Responsibility has no Place in Policy

For the past few weeks I have been looking at many different moral issues related to distributing health care resources.  All of the topics have been challenging and interesting, but I found that I was not strongly inclined to either side for most of the topics.  Not so for the latest topic.  Next week we will be discussing whether an individual’s personal responsibility should be a consideration when deciding how to distribute resources.

At the moment I feel quite strongly that responsibility should not be a consideration when distributing any resources – health or otherwise.  The reason that I’m opposed to responsibility based distribution stem from the topic of my previous post – people in disadvantaged rolls in society have less willpower.  Punishing them for this lack of willpower is a double whammy.  This does not mean that I’m universally against any kind of incentives or encouragement – if we found that reducing health benefits for smokers significantly decreased smoking then I would at least consider such a policy, for example.  I am just against any responsibility based justification for such a policy.

Probably more controversially, I would extend very similar reasoning to areas like criminal justice.  I do not think that punishment, the infliction of harm because a criminal is deserving of harm, should be a consideration in the dispensation of justice.  That people desire that criminals be punished is a sensible consideration, but it should not be the role of the state to desire punishment on its citizens behest.

Let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

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Poor Decisions – How Poverty and Marginalization Reduces our Potential for Autonomy

In some of my previous posts I’ve discussed the notion that adversity impairs autonomy.  I’ve recently come across some evidence that reinforces this notion.

There is an idea in psychology called ego depletion.  The basic concept is that willpower is a finite resource.  This maps on to my reflections of autonomy fairly well, though I may expand the idea because I tend to think any mental exertion or effort to impose order within our lives draws upon this a single pool.

A few days ago I saw a presentation by Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge.  The main concept of the presentation (modeled after the book) is that government can efficiently influence people through careful default setting.  I won’t go further into this concept, but if you read the wiki it will explain further.  The important idea for my purposes is that in many ways it is good if our choice making is minimized.  To draw upon the idea of ego depletion, the more we can conserve willpower the better.  Sunstein threw out an interesting thought near the end of the presentation by noting that poor people need to make more choices then wealthy people do.  Wealth, in many significant ways, reduces the need for decision making.  A wealthy person just doesn’t need to budget as carefully.

This article, Why Can’t More Poor People Escape Poverty, basically talks about what I’ve covered so far.  People with less money burn through scarce mental resources faster.  Having read all this, though, I was still left with a question.  I’d previously claimed that marginalization reduced autonomy, but I wanted to see if I could find any experimental evidence to support the idea.  It didn’t take me too long to find this article: Stigma as Ego Depletion.  The experimental findings of this research project are essentially that people who are exposed to stigma subsequently preform more poorly on willpower tests.

There is an old Nietzsche quote ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger.”  I do not suggest that we throw out every nuance of the quote, since there is some evidence that exposure to small traumas over time may make us more resilient.  In general, though, adversity has a propensity to undermine our autonomy.

Let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

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Rational and Irrational Action – Exploring the Proper Subject Matter of Psychology

One of the courses that I am currently taking is Philosophy of the Social Sciences.  I went into this course thinking that the social sciences were a sub-set of science as a whole, but based on my first few weeks I think that the professor is instead making the argument that the two are quite different.  I’ll probably write more on that topic in the coming weeks, though it is only peripherally related to the particular topic I want to talk about today.

My latest reading for the course was Human Nature and Human History, by Collingwood.  This paper, as the title implies, explores human nature. The paper builds on the notion that human nature is fundamentally rational by suggesting an integral part of this rationality is the ability to benefit from the rational experience of other people.  We can rethink the ideas of other people (i.e. we can learn from the thoughts of others).  Collingwood characterizes history thus – historians look through the facts of history towards the thoughts that drove it.  This is history in an extremely lose sense, since he also says this is essentially what we do when we try to understand others.  This notion of human nature Collingwood puts in opposition to more naturalistic science definitions – he is rejecting the notion that we can capture human nature in statistics and laws in favor of a much more autonomous model.

The previous much abbreviated paragraph summarizes the majority of the article.  At the very end, however, Collingwood has a note about psychology.  He says that if we buy his proposal, we might be wondering where this leaves psychology.  He outlines several options, but his main proposal is that psychology proper should be preoccupied with the non-rational elements of human nature.  By his account rationality can not be properly explored by psychology because rationality is not something that follows ‘rules’ in the general scientific sense of the term.  The non-rational elements of our mind, however, are much more rule abiding and therefore are proper candidates of study.

I cannot decide exactly what I think of this proposal.  On one hand I want to be skeptical, given that there seems to be a danger of separating reason into a special substance or something of that nature.  On the other hand, his account actually fits quite well with some of my explanations of autonomy.  Either way, I find the article very interesting.

Let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

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The State as Ethical Agent

Another post!  I have started my master program, but I’ve been busy.  I plan to update once a week on Friday or Saturday.

I just had an interesting conversation with another person in my program.  We were talking about whether it was right to sacrifice an (essentially) unlimited number of people for someone that you love.  His very strong inclination was that he would make such a sacrifice, without really caring whether it was right or not.  I felt that the right thing to do would be to sacrifice a loved one for an immense number of other people.

What I would like to talk about in this post is not that issue exactly.  I’m rather inclined to think, when it comes to problems such as the one I describe above, that we will never reach a real solution.  We will continue to develop and invent moral systems to help us in making challenging choices, but (in line with my general theory of autonomy) the most we can do is be invested in the process.

The new ground that I want to cover today is the the government as an ethical actor.  In certain ways a government can be considered strongly analogous to a human actor.  Fortunately governments mostly have the same moral concerns as we do.  Governments do not have individualistic attachments however.  Though a government can have priorities and biases, it must have a significant amount of corruption to be attached to individual people.  Though government has only so much power to act ethically based on the limits of our ethical theories, it can apply these theories in an inhumanly impartial way (though in a democracy it remains strongly tethered to public opinion).

A government is still limited in that it must maintain its working parts to function – in a sense it is maintaining itself by maintaining its people.  Extreme utilitarian maximization (focus all money on healthcare and military, maybe) will exhaust a government/country in the same way it exhausts an individual, since a government is comprised of individuals.

This is a very, very rough idea.  I’ll work on it some more, and see if I get anywhere with it.

Let me know what you think,

CreativePhilo

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