Moral Worldviews and Empirical Beliefs

By James Kwak

Funny thing, Twitter. My most-viewed tweet ever is the following:

That’s a retweet of this, from Neel Kashkari:

The quotation about the survey is from the WSJ article about Russ Roberts that Kashkari originally tweeted.

Most of the comments on my tweet were some version of “duh.” But then there were a bunch who said some version of “correlation doesn’t imply causality” (which is an excuse to link to my favorite XKCD cartoon).

The thing is, it’s quite plausible that there is causality from empirical beliefs (how the world works) to policy preferences (what one should do). But I don’t see why there would be causality from empirical beliefs to moral beliefs. For example, let’s say you think that same-sex marriage is morally wrong, perhaps because the Bible says so (in your interpretation, at least). You should be able to concede any number of empirical points—that gay couples are perfectly good at raising children, that the existence of gay married couples does not weaken straight marriages around them, that the incidence of gay married couples does not cause an increase in crime, etc.—while still holding to your belief that same-sex marriage is morally wrong. That’s the thing about morality. Conceding these points might decrease your resistance to gay marriage as a public policy—that’s causality from empirics to policy—but it shouldn’t change your moral beliefs.

So what is this “survey of 131 economists” really about? The preliminary findings are in “The Moral Narratives of Economists” by Anthony Randazzo and Jonathan Haidt. They surveyed a bunch of economists and asked them two sets of questions: one economic (e.g., is austerity good or bad for economic growth) and one moral (e.g., which is more fair, equal outcomes or outcomes that are proportional to contributions).  They found, to take a couple of examples:

  • “Economists that tended to favor fiscal austerity during a recession defined fairness in proportional terms” and more generally “tended to show a moral judgment profile similar to what you would find among political conservatives.”
  •  Economists who opposed austerity during a recession “tended to have moral worldviews similar to political progressives, such as defining fairness in terms of equality.”

The obvious (“duh”) reading is that moral beliefs (conservative, liberal) shape people’s opinions about what should be empirical questions (effects of austerity).

The reverse-causality argument is the following: Imagine some macroeconomist who starts off with an egalitarian moral worldview. She studies fiscal policy in recessions and concludes that fiscal austerity tends to increase economic growth. Because of this research finding, she adopts conservative moral views—that is, she starts thinking that fairness should be thought of in terms of just deserts rather than equal outcomes. To me, that just doesn’t make sense. I don’t see the mechanism that leads from a judgment about policy effectiveness to a belief about what is fair.

But here’s the broader question that Randazzo and Haidt bring up. Take two big questions about the role of government in the economy: (a) whether there should be a robust welfare state to protect people from the risks of capitalism; and (b) whether should be a robust regulatory state to ensure that corporate profit-seeking is channeled toward socially beneficial ends. These are two very different issues, and the empirical questions on which they depend are also very different. The first depends a lot on whether you think that the incentive costs of welfare programs are balanced by the benefits they provide to recipients; the second depends a lot on whether you think that the cost of regulation exceeds the social costs generated by corporate externalities in the first place. It should be possible for a careful economist to conclude that the welfare state is good and the regulatory state is bad, or vice versa.

So why is it, as Randazzo and Haidt observe, that “there seem to be no U.S. economists who take diverging views on the welfare state and the regulatory state?” Their hypothesis is that people, including economists, have morally coherent, narrative beliefs about the world—stories—and their beliefs about specific, empirical questions have to be consistent with those stories. To anyone who is at all self-aware, this seems obvious. Duh.

6 thoughts on “Moral Worldviews and Empirical Beliefs

  1. Funny thing about the laws of nature, they don’t discriminate, not even worldwide.

  2. More misery for others = More $$$$ for ME ME ME

    Mathematical Absolutism – the NWO

    the acceptance of or belief in absolute principles in political, philosophical, ethical, or theological matters.

    Any questions about how “they” (the elite and their sycophant government) got up in your face ala The Patriot Act only to hurt you….? To TAKE IT ALL? They take it all as they beat their breasts whining about how WE are after their stolen loot…

    Please, take your fcking blood soaked stolen FIAT $$$$ and gtf outta USA – you have 2000 years of “history” in your “holy” books telling you to heed the signs of YOUR “end times”….everyone is convinced that nothing short of a silver vampire killer bullet is going to rid the body politic of the cancer that is “the chosen ones”…so get out of my face and every other “middle class” face you vicious “what is torture when greed is good” leeches…and take your diversity and immigrants and confused about which toilet to use micro-minority in need of “special” legislation with you…go build your moral economy in Africa – it has been under your feet for millions of years….

    Look, take any angle to view it – the reality is that we are in the cannibal phase of capitalism (AKA “immigration”)

  3. You know what I hate about America?
    Quartermane Democrats, you know even dollar holding Republicans need lovin once and a while.

  4. How do we know if we have the “moral sense?” Well here are some ways.

    And recall that It’s now after midnight, and TIME waits for NO one? And that even trumps your net worth. Now we just found out what the head Dr. calls rising from the dead, he calls it fluff, i’m certain next he’ll want to add nutter, as with fluffer nutter cause if you aint thinking like the doc, he wants to ridicule your every move.
    Oh the silly games we play, when we want/have to get our way.

  5. Well, the study is useful in showing that economics is not science. Economists clearly aren’t using scientific methodology otherwise their “findings” wouldn’t consistently and conveniently correlate with their moral positions. Obviously, to quote the Downing Street Memo, “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy”.

    In regards to:

    > whether there should be a robust welfare state to protect
    > people from the risks of capitalism

    It isn’t simply about protecting, it’s about facilitating. In fact there already is a massive welfare state in place already *for* capitalism. Forgetting the obvious examples like infrastructure, literal grants and deductions, and military and police protections, there is the whole concept of incorporation itself.

    Why? Because incorporation comes with a government enforced limit on liability. With that every owner, from mom and pops, to shareholders are receiving a massive subsidy in terms of liability caps, caps that would otherwise have to be met through impossibly expensive insurance policies. In fact capitalism becomes untenable without these explicit (but only seen as implicit) caps. Who would invest in a company when any malfeasance or bankruptcy would go beyond simply investment loss?

    This is a massive form of welfare to corporations.

    I could go on about the granting and enforcement of copyrights and patents, which is also a form of government “welfare”, though not as obviously clear. I will skip for now though.

    As far as “welfare” for the little people, welfare could be seen to actually facilitate the entrepreneurial capitalism that is so lauded these days. I know that personally I would be far more likely to try to launch my own business should I believe there were actually a safety net to catch me if it failed. There are a lot of things many people would take the “risk” of doing that might be economically stimulating if they believed they had some sort of effective government safety net (beyond the massive incorporation liability caps noted before). Who wants to risk living on the street if their “great idea” fails?

    In short, “welfare” is not only more prevalent in places where it is not obvious, it can also be seen to facilitate capitalism, not just protect against it.

  6. Carl, on the other side of the coin, when a scientist becomes simply another failed engineer, who wouldn’t want funding to study something to death until they reach the desired conclusion, cancer research being a primary offender . What engineering firm or machine shop wouldn’t like a fat gvt contract to make implements of destruction(or over design computer in cars) so they can collect a large pay check and or pension in return. What worker wouldn’t want to collect a pension long after the product they made or service they performed has outlived it’s usefulness or been payed for by the primary customer(s).
    What retard wouldn’t want to reproduce more retards if they knew the gvt welfare system would reward doing so. We have slowly become a nation of retards, our legislators are retarded when they simply enact more laws to tax the citizens so they can find more ways to spend the money, (19 trillion dollars so far and no end in sight, [they can’t even find a way to legislate doing their own taxes]), rather than legislate that said items be designed and made to pass the test of time. Our institutional doctors are retarded when they refuse to acknowledge their lack of wisdom, and then obstruct it’s natural due course. Our lawyers and court systems are retarded when they simply use their own formula to justify an ends to their means.
    The place is on a collision course of it’s own making and refuses to see or even acknowledge that it exists. It’s goes against the laws of nature and It’s unsustainable, and that which can not be sustained, won’t be, trust me on this, it’s written.

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