Why Economic Growth is More Important than Gender Equality

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Figure 1: Taking care of moral issues enhances the economy

I think most of would agree that issues such as gender equality, education and malnutrition are important matters. Not only morally, in the sense that anyone of us should have the right to be treated equally, to receive education or to have proper feeding, but also because of their economic consequences. Studies have shown that gender inequality, lack of education and malnutrition affect the economy of a country negatively (see Figure 1). But fewer studies, at least none I could find, look at the relation the other way: what are the effects of economic development on gender inequality, education and malnutrition? Or more broadly: what are the effects of economic development on moral issues, instead of the other way around?

Let’s take gender equality, for example. I think it is reasonable to assume that when a country develops economically, the role of women in society will improve – in the sense that they are treated more equally to men. For suppose people have more disposable income, as a result of economic development. Then this money might allow families a sense of freedom that partially breaks down the traditional role division between the working man and housewife. The money might for example allow women to pursue their interests, whether this be education, painting or something else, thereby enabling them to develop in a manner similar to men.

Furthermore, economic development might reduce the number of children per family, thereby putting less pressure on either the man or woman to stay at home to care for the children. This enables both parties to participate more equally in, for example, the workplace.

Economic development might also increase the level of education in a society. In case there is a system of private schooling in place, this is obvious. For if people have more income to spend, they can spend more on the education of their children, thereby increasing the level of education received in society. Also, more income means more taxes. In case a country has public schooling, more taxes allows for a more elaborate educational system, thereby enhancing education. Also, when families have more income, their children might not have to do labour to increase the family’s income. This provides them with the time required for education.

Malnutrition; another problem. It is obvious how malnutrition might be bad for a country’s economy. But it is just as obvious how economic development might reduce malnutrition. After all: if people have more income to spend, they can spend more money on food, thereby decreasing the level of malnutrition. Furthermore, if an economy develops, the supply of food might increase, since there might be more economic demand for food. The food might also be cheaper due to increased mass production, hence increasing the availability of food for the common people.

I am sure there are many other moral issues I didn’t deal with in this article (think about poverty, or child labour), but that affect both the economic development of a country and are affected by it. But what each of these matters appear to have in common is that they can be improved by improving the economic development of a society. Hence, in case you want to improve the well-being of a society, as many charities might want to do, you might be better of developing a society economically than to try and solve each moral issue one by one (see Figure 2). Because why choose the hard way when there might be a much simpler solution?

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Figure 2: Economic development might (partially) solve moral issues

What do you think?

Why ISIS Is Ignorant, But Not Wrong

It is clear that we in the West do not agree with ISIS. We think that what they think is wrong, and more importantly: we think that what they do is wrong. They decapitate Western journalists, promote violence against people who don’t agree with their religious beliefs, organize terrorist attacks, and even destroy Iraq’s cultural heritage – statues that were over 5000 years old. How can they do this? Why do they do this? Is it due to their set of (religious) beliefs? And if so, can we then judge them for doing what they think is the right thing to do?

First a rather obvious observation: people from different cultures or societies have different ideas about what is right or wrong. This view is called descriptive moral relativism, and it’s a moderate, empirical claim, that is corroborated by reality. Look only at the people of ISIS, who think that what they do is spreading the true message of Allah, and who think that anyone who disobeys this message is wrong. They believe that they should stick to a very strict interpretation of the Islam, and that people who don’t do this, should be done away with. If not by words, then through force. We in the West clearly find their ideas about what is right and wrong absurd. Hence ISIS and us, clearly, disagree about what we find right and wrong.

We could go one step further than this claim, and say that ISIS and us don’t merely have different ideas about what is right and wrong, but that neither of us is more right or wrong than the other in having these ideas. There are many cultures and equally many ideas about what is right and wrong, but there simply is no absolute, culture independent interpretation of right and wrong.

And there is something to say for this so called meta moral relativism. After all, acts can hardly be judged wrong in any absolute sense; that is, without regarding the relevant context. Killing a person might seem wrong, but if you can save one hundred people by doing so, it might actually be a sin if you wouldn’t do it. So the context appears to matter for deciding whether an action is right or wrong. So it could in principle be possible that a culture’s or society’s set of beliefs, taken as the relevant context, genuinely determines whether an action is good or bad. Applied to the ISIS case: it is not only that they have the idea that destroying Iraq’s cultural heritage is right, but given their set of beliefs, it truly is the right thing to do. An equivalent way to say this is that what is right or wrong is determined by nothing but the idea of what is right and wrong. Hence, given that ISIS thinks that what they are doing is right, which I assume they do, their deeds are truly right – for them at least.

Let’s for the sake of argument assume that this meta moral relativism is a correct description of reality: that there truly is a plurality of interpretations of right and wrong floating around, none better or worse than the others. Then, applied to the ISIS case, we have to face a difficult question. Because if ISIS truly thinks to do what is right, how then can we judge them? Okay: we might have a different interpretation of what is right than they do, but we have just established that having a different interpretation doesn’t make their views wrong regardless of the context. Our conception of morality is just different from ISIS’s: different, but not superior.

And, playing the devil’s advocate, don’t we (the West) do exactly the same? It might not be the message of Allah that we try to spread throughout the world, but the message of liberalism and freedom. And we too are willing to go to great lengths to spread this message. History shows that countless of people have been killed because their actions didn’t cohere with our ‘right’ notions of freedom and liberalism – the Nazi’s being just one example.

So it appears that we cannot declare ISIS’s ideas and actions to be more wrong than ours – not while strictly assuming meta moral relativism. That’s a pity.

But there might be a way out. A way in which we can judge ISIS’s beliefs and actions to be wrong, without falling into the pitfalls of meta moral relativism. Because even though we might not be able to say that ISIS’s ideas and actions are absolutely wrong, we can say that ISIS is ignorant. We can say that they have not tried to actively refute their basic set of principles – the principles, derived from the Islam, that make their actions right. For if they would have done so, which I am quite sure they have not (because Allah’s words seem the most basic principles guiding their thinking, and even doubting these principles is wrong), it seems hard to imagine that they would have still accepted such principles.

So we can say that ISIS is ignorant, which in itself could be found immoral. But let’s not go there…

What do you think?

Why Economics Should Return to its Roots

Economics explains how people interact within markets to accomplish certain goals. People; not robots. And people are creatures with desires, animalistic urges that guide them into making conscious, but often unconscious, decisions. That sets them apart from robots, which act solely upon formal rules (If A, then B, etc.). But this difference between humans and robots shouldn’t have to be a problem, right? Not if economics takes into account the fact that humans are biological creatures, who (might) have got a free will; an observation which makes their actions undetermined and therefore unable to be captured in terms of laws.

It seems fair to say that we all want to increase our utility – in the broadest sense of the word. But do we always know why we want to increase our utility? Don’t we never ‘just want’ to go out, ‘just want’ to buy a new television, ‘just want’ to go on holiday? Yes we do: it seems that, sometimes, we just happen to want things: we don’t know why, we don’t have explicit motives for our desires. And if we – the people having the desires – don’t even know why we do things, how on earth could economists know, let alone capture these actions in laws? That’s only possible if you make assumptions: very limiting assumptions.

Rational choice theory is a framework used within economics to better understand social and economic behavior by means of formal modeling. But if this sense of understanding – that is possible only through formalizing humans’ behavior – is only possible by treating humans like robots, what then, on a conceptual level, is the difference between economics and artificial intelligence? Besides that the latter really works with robots and the former seems to assume to work with robots? Robots whose actions are fully predictable and explainable by a set of parameters: speed, vision, greediness etc. Or its formal economic counterpart: humans whose actions are manipulable by changing interest rates, government expenditures, taxes and other parameters that are part of the large economic machine we are all a part of. Assuming a mindless creature, following formal rules, makes it possible to capture his intentions in a formal corset. Everything should be dealt with in a formal manner: even uncertainty should be put in mathematical terms. Anything to make sure that we don’t miss out on any of the creature’s shenanigans. Even the ones that are grounded in the deep domains of irrationality.

But maybe it’s time to wake up and ask ourselves the question: have we come to forget what that we’re dealing with humans here? That the economy is not a steam engine, robot or any other mindless entity whose actions are fully explainable – let alone predictable. Have we forgotten that economics is a ‘social’ science, a science dealing with products of the human mind, related more to psychology than to mathematics?

It’s understandable that economics wants to position itself as being a ‘genuine’ science, a science that is able to objectively describe the way the world works. A science that wants to show that it is capable of capturing its findings in laws. But why should economics be dependent upon these kind of formalities in order for it to be a science? Isn’t it time for economics to stop being insecure? To realize that it’s beautiful the way it is. Why does it behave like an 18-year old girl, whining and crying about the girls who she thinks are prettier than her? Stop it economics! You’re pretty: be happy with what you are.

But this leads us to the real question: what is economics? Economics is – much like politics – a system created by the interaction between us human beings. A system that – although less explicitly than politics – is founded on the notion of morality: our ideas about what’s right and wrong. It’s no surprise that figures such as Adam Smith and Friedrich Hayek have been so influential in economics. They understood what economics was really about: economics is in the basis a philosophy of what it means to be a human being, and the fundamental rights that each one of us should have. This ethics is the starting point of their economic systems. And that’s a tradition current economists should try to continue: interweaving morality and money. Keeping an eye on the moral fundamentals underlying markets and coming up with original ideas about how to improve these markets on a moral level. So there’s plenty of work left to do for the genuine economist.

But what do you think?

How to Justify Consequentialism Without Pointing at the Consequences?

What makes an action good or bad? People adhering to deontological ethics judge the morality of their actions based on whether their actions follow certain rules. ‘You should not kill’, ‘You should not steal’ and ‘You should not lie’ are examples of such rules. On the other end there are people who say that ‘ the ends justify the means’, and that the rightness or wrongness of an action is ultimately based on the outcomes of the action. ‘You may lie if the damage caused to the person you lie to is negligible in comparison to the utility you gain/the dis-utility you prevent from happening’ could be an example. The latter position is an instance of a the broader position of consequentialism

So: what position to choose? Should you base your conduct on absolute rules, or should you weigh the expected outcomes of actions in order to decide what action is the right one to take? One could say that it is reasonable to judge each case on its own merits. That it does not make sense to hold on to the rule ‘You should not lie’, because in some cases lying might be ‘better’ – in whatever sense defined – for both you and the person you lie too. For example: suppose your father is lying on his deathbed. You have just heard that your sister – the apple of your dad’s eye – got cancer. Given that you know that your dad cares an awful lot about your sister, and that telling about your sister’s situation is likely to worsen his health, it might in fact be bad – in terms outcomes – to tell him about your sister’s situation. Furthermore, given your own happiness, it might be better not to say anything (saving you the painful outcome of seeing your dad suffer from the news). Hence one could reasonably say that there are instances, such as this example, that falsify an absolute rule of conduct – ‘You should not lie,’ in this case. That implies that deontological ethics is not necessarily – or not always – the best stance to adopt.

That brings us to consequentialism: might this be a more reasonable position to adopt? In order to reasonably claim so, one should at least come up with a reasonable answer to the following question: how can you base your conduct on the outcomes of your actions if you don’t know what the consequences of your actions will be? We can – after all – not look into the future, hence we cannot know what the consequences of our actions will be. You could – for example – think that your girlfriend would not mind it if you’d post a photo of you and another girl on your social media (‘because she is so reasonable’), but it might turn out that, contrary to your expectation, she does. You can of course have expectations, but are expectations sufficient to ground moral conduct? After all, each case is unique – each case has innumerable factors that influence the outcome of one’s action. Hence even coming up with a reasonable expectation might – a priori – be impossible.

A more fundamental problem with consequentialism might be the premise on which the doctrine is based: something along the lines of ‘An action is good if its outcomes are good’. It seems that this rule – which forms the foundation of the consequentialist position – is, by definition, deontological in nature. But what then justifies this rule? If the reason would be that adopting this rule is good because it leads to the best outcomes, then we are justifying consequentialism with consequentialism, which seems intolerable. On the other hand, if we take this rule to be applied without looking at its expected outcomes, then we are deriving consequentialism – at least in part – from deontological ethics, which could cast doubt on whether one is actually applying consequentialism instead of deontological ethics.

I find this a difficult issue. What do you think?

P.S. For the sake of the length of this article, I left out pragmatic ethics. This seems to be a middle ground between deontological ethics and consequentialism that could be reasonable.