KG

Kelly Geddes

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I think this idea of the role of power in the question of deontological vs consequentialist reasoning is interesting.  I don't have a lot of background in formal ethics, so I'm not sure how I would classify my own ethical camp, but generally I've always thought that deontological values can be taken into consideration in a consequentialist framework--when we are asking whether it is acceptable to violate a general rule for the "greater good," we should consider the consequences of eroding the sense of integrity, honesty, human rights, etc. in our society.  In cases where bending a rule can do a lot of good (i.e. lying to get money for life-saving medical care), this seems perfectly fine to me.  But when someone is too quick to justify breaking intuitive moral rules, they are probably undervaluing the harm they are doing by eroding the values that underlie those rules.  I'm sure I'm not the first person to have this thought (feel free to let me know if there's a name for this position, as I'd be curious to know).   

The question this post raises for me is whether there are circumstances where the deontological rules have more or less weight.  And power seems like a relevant criteria.  If your actions are extremely influential, then it may be more likely that you'll face decisions where the immediate consequences are simply of far more importance than the deontological rules you may be bending or breaking. I certainly wouldn't want a world leader unwilling to fall short of absolute honesty when dealing with terrorist threats, for instance.  Or the choices available might simply be so influential and complex that there is no pure choice--for instance, setting healthcare policies where there aren't enough resources to save everyone, and so any decision will involve a choice to let people die.  

But ultimately, I don't think power fundamentally changes the paradigm.  For one thing, the more influential a person is, the more consequential their violations of deontological rules will be, which cautions against being too quick to think that a high-stakes decision shouldn't be constrained by the sorts of moral rules we apply to more mundane decisions.  In this case, it is obvious that the choices made by FTX have been extremely harmful and eroded a public sense of trust and integrity.  

In addition, there's a difference between people who are entrusted to make difficult moral tradeoffs, and people who are not.  Where someone is elected to determine policy, they may have to make high-stakes decisions and moral tradeoffs that can't totally align with intuitive deontological rules.  In other words, they're given a license to make those calls.  But it's a different case where, as here, nobody entrusted FTX to make the decision whether to use customer funds the way it did.  Assuming for the sake of this discussion that FTX made that decision because it believed the ends justified the means, FTX wasn't just making that judgment call--it was also deciding that it should be the decision-maker.  To me, that is the real problem.  Because FTX wasn't just contributing to a world where people are lied to for the greater good, or where people's wealth is gambled without their for the greater good.  It was also contributing to a world where everyone makes that decision for themselves rather than deferring to the rules society has decided to impose.  That world would be utter chaos, with everyone in a position of power,  however they got it, deciding to substitute their judgment for the judgment of society.  

I'm not saying nobody should ever make a decision they weren't entrusted with.  If I had the chance to assassinate a president about to hit the red button and start a nuclear apocalypse, I wouldn't worry too much about the arrogance inherent in making that decision myself.  And I hope others in that situation would do the same.  But that's in part because I'm really, really, really confident that it's the right call.  And that confidence is strengthened by fact that I don't think the applicable laws (don't kill the president) properly address the situation where it's the only way to save the world from certain doom.  And I think that if I could ask society for permission, I would get it, but I just don't have time.  But in FTX's situation, it wasn't dealing with some unforeseeable circumstance, and there is no reason to think that society would have approved of its choice if asked.  And nobody deliberately entrusted FTX with the authority to make these moral tradeoffs.  So the only justification is that FTX simply knew better than everyone else, and when that is the only justification, I would guess in the vast majority of real-world cases it is an example of arrogance and motivated reasoning, not of a super-intelligent entity saving society from its own misguided sense of morality.  

In short, I guess what I'm saying is that I agree that the precise intuitions that guide our mundane daily decisions are less applicable to people in positions of power.  But there are still intuitive rules that do apply--Were you entrusted to make this sort of decision?  Would fully informed people be likely to agree that the benefits of your choice outweigh the harm done? Are you breaking a rule that clearly wasn't established with the situation you're facing in mind?  Or are you just deciding that you know better than everyone else and that the consequences are so important that it justifies not only your arrogance, but the real harm done to society by promoting the idea that individuals should override social judgment calls with their own?

Ultimately, I agree that the answer isn't simply more deontology.  Rather, it's a greater respect for the moral values of the society we live in and the harm we cause if we violate them, as well as more humility with regards to our ability to determine when we know better and are therefore justified in breaking the rules.  I won't pretend that there's any side constraint or rule that I would never break, no matter the positive consequences of doing so.  For instance, if the entire world voted in favor of nuclear Armageddon, I'd still try to stop it.  But I can still say with confidence that, unless I'm entrusted with a position of power where I'm not expected or able to strictly adhere to those side constraints, I think it's extremely unlikely that a real-world situation would arise where I would feel justified doing so.  

Whether sweatshops are good and whether we should buy from them are two different questions. I think it's perfectly consistent to say sweatshops are terrible, but boycotting sweatshops only makes things work. Like some of the other comments have said, sweatshops are exploitative, sweatshop workers are dehumanized, and informed consent is a serious issue, to put it mildly (I've read about young girls essentially forced by their families into multi-year contracts that they cannot escape from, in order to pay off family debts). People who reject the idea that sweatshops are "good" or even a "net positive" aren't totally wrong -- in a genuinely good society there should not be any sweatshops. 

That said, buying from a local company that makes you feel good does not do anything to help the sweatshop workers. At the end of the day, saying we should boycott sweatshops is saying we should put the workers out of business, and saying we should buy locally means we should keep our wealth within our wealthy communities.  Buying locally is a self-centered solution because it focuses on alleviating the feeling of guilt at benefitting from exploitation of the poor.  But it's probably not the right response for someone genuinely seeking to benefit those poor.  

Sweatshops are probably a "net positive" compared to buying locally, but they are not a "net positive" compared to factories that treat their workers well and share the profits fairly. People may be put off by the framing of sweat shops as "good" because it sounds like saying that the exploitation of poor workers is desirable. A better framing might be that the exploitation is already happening, and buying from sweatshops is likely better than boycotting if you're concerned about the welfare of those workers. But that's not to say that sweatshops are not sites of many terrible abuses, and that seeking to eliminate those abuses through other avenues would not be a good thing. 

You may not be particularly interested in moral judgments of sweatshops as good or bad if you are focused on the utilitarian question of whether they are causing a net harm or a net good, but acknowledging that they are "bad" in the sense that they are exploitative and abusive may make it easier for people to swallow the separate argument that buying from sweatshops may nonetheless be more beneficial than harmful to the workers.