Are ethical asymmetries from property rights?

Link post

Th­ese are some in­tu­itions peo­ple of­ten have:

  • You are not re­quired to save a ran­dom per­son, but you are definitely not al­lowed to kill one

  • You are not re­quired to cre­ate a per­son, but you are definitely not al­lowed to kill one

  • You are not re­quired to cre­ate a happy per­son, but you are definitely not al­lowed to cre­ate a mis­er­able one

  • You are not re­quired to help a ran­dom per­son who will be in a dire situ­a­tion oth­er­wise, but you are definitely not al­lowed to put some­one in a dire situation

  • You are not re­quired to save a per­son in front of a run­away train, but you are definitely not al­lowed to push some­one in front of a train. By ex­ten­sion, you are not re­quired to save five peo­ple in front of a run­away train, and if you have to push some­one in front of the train to do it, then you are not al­lowed.

Here are some more:

  • You are not strongly re­quired to give me your bread, but you are not al­lowed to take mine

  • You are not strongly re­quired to lend me your car, but you are not al­lowed to unilat­er­ally bor­row mine

  • You are not strongly re­quired to send me money, but you are not al­lowed to take mine

The former are eth­i­cal in­tu­itions. The lat­ter are im­pli­ca­tions of a ba­sic sys­tem of prop­erty rights. Yet they seem very similar. The eth­i­cal in­tu­itions seem to just be prop­erty rights as ap­plied to lives and welfare. Your life is your prop­erty. I’m not al­lowed to take it, but I’m not obliged to give it to you if you don’t by de­fault have it. Your welfare is your prop­erty. I’m not al­lowed to lessen what you have, but I don’t have to give you more of it.

My guess is that these eth­i­cal asym­me­tries—which are con­fus­ing, be­cause they defy con­se­quen­tial­ism—are part of the men­tal equip­ment we have for up­hold­ing prop­erty rights.

In par­tic­u­lar these well-known asym­me­tries seem to be ex­plained well by prop­erty rights:

  • The act-omis­sion dis­tinc­tion nat­u­rally arises where an act would in­volve tak­ing some­one else’s prop­erty (broadly con­strued—e.g. their life, their welfare), while an omis­sion would merely fail to give them ad­di­tional prop­erty (e.g. life that they are not by de­fault go­ing to have, ad­di­tional welfare).

  • ‘The asym­me­try’ be­tween cre­at­ing happy and mis­er­able peo­ple is be­cause to cre­ate a mis­er­able per­son is to give that per­son some­thing nega­tive, which is to take away what they have, while cre­at­ing a happy per­son is giv­ing that per­son some­thing ex­tra.

  • Per­son-af­fect­ing views arise be­cause birth gives some­one a thing they don’t have, whereas death takes a thing from them.

Fur­ther ev­i­dence that these in­tu­itive asym­me­tries are based on up­hold­ing prop­erty rights: we also have moral-feel­ing in­tu­itions about more straight­for­ward prop­erty rights. Steal­ing is wrong.

If I am right that we have these asym­met­ri­cal eth­i­cal in­tu­itions as part of a scheme to up­hold prop­erty rights, what would that im­ply?

It might im­ply some­thing about when we want to up­hold them, or con­sider them part of ethics, be­yond their in­stru­men­tal value. Prop­erty rights at least ap­pear to be a sys­tem for peo­ple with di­verse goals to co­or­di­nate use of scarce re­sources—which is to say, to some­how use the re­sources with low lev­els of con­flict and de­struc­tion. They do not ap­pear to be a sys­tem for peo­ple to achieve spe­cific goals, e.g. what­ever is ac­tu­ally good. Un­less what is good is ex­actly the smooth shar­ing of re­sources.

I’m not ac­tu­ally sure what to make of that—should we write off some moral in­tu­itions as clearly evolved for not-ac­tu­ally-moral rea­sons and just rea­son about the con­se­quen­tial­ist value of up­hold­ing prop­erty rights? If we have the moral in­tu­ition, does that make the thing of moral value, re­gard­less of its ori­gins? Is prag­matic rules for so­cial co­he­sion all that ethics is any­way? Ques­tions for an­other time per­haps (when we are sort­ing out meta-ethics any­way).

A more straight­for­ward im­pli­ca­tion is for how we try to ex­plain these eth­i­cal asym­me­tries. If we have an in­tu­ition about an asym­me­try which stems from up­hold­ing prop­erty rights, it would seem to be a mis­take to treat it as ev­i­dence about an asym­me­try in con­se­quences, e.g. in value ac­cru­ing to a per­son. For in­stance, per­haps I feel that I am not obliged to cre­ate a life, by hav­ing a child. Then—if I sup­pose that my in­tu­itions are about pro­duc­ing good­ness—I might think that cre­at­ing a life is of neu­tral value, or is of no value to the cre­ated child. When in fact the in­tu­ition ex­ists be­cause al­lo­cat­ing things to own­ers is a use­ful way to avoid so­cial con­flict. That in­tu­ition is part of a struc­ture that is known to be ag­nos­tic about benefits to peo­ple from me giv­ing them my stuff. If I’m right that these in­tu­itions come from up­hold­ing prop­erty rights, this seems like an er­ror that is ac­tu­ally hap­pen­ing.