Please stick to the normal returns and cash flow you’re used to.
A while back, Sam introduced us to Trolley Problems. I refer to Trolley Problems as a proper noun, since it’s a category of thought-experiments (Gedankenexperimente) that I will be using to test our moral intuitions vis-à-vis euvoluntary exchange.
As Sam put it, “The purpose of these thought exercises is to get at justice or fairness heuristics.” I’d like to engage you, dear readers, in a conversation about a particular Trolley Problem I’ll call “Water in the Desert”. Be forewarned, however, that the gods of rhetoric will smite thee mightily if you refuse to take these Gedankenexperimente as-is. Since the optimal amount of smiting is in the neighborhood of zero, I humbly suggest you take on the role of an interested conspirator, and refrain from poking holes in the thought-experiment.
Continuing to borrow from Sam (he’s a talented communicator, no?), “These trolley problems help us tickle out moral intuition.”
The classical Trolley Problem introduces us to one scenario and asks us for our hypothetical response, then changes the problem slightly and asks us again for a response. When the problems are well-constructed, they show us some of the subtleties of our moral intuitions; in the case of the trolley, we’ll kill people remotely (for the greater good), but wouldn’t dream of putting our hands on another to do harm. Experimental philosophers love this stuff.
Water in the Desert
We’ll be working with “Water in the Desert” (or the desert scenario) a lot in the coming weeks, so we’d best get the classical formulation under our belts. I first heard the desert scenario from Walter Williams in the first course of the GMU PhD micro sequence. After telling the story, Walter concluded that “there’s no such thing as exploitation” or that it’s all “just utter nonsense”. I’ll try to be less incredulous here, and I’ll borrow TGM’s plot devices.
It goes like this. There’s a guy dying of thirst in the desert. We’ll call him Jimbo. Jorgé drives up in his Taco Truck (because street food is awesome), and offers Jimbo a bottle of water for $10,000 (the exact amounts don’t matter, here; it’s just a boat-load of cash). Jimbo protests that the water is too damn high, but Jorgé just shrugs his shoulders and starts to drive off. Jimbo happens to have ten grand in his wallet, so he shouts for Jorgé to stop, forks over the cash, and narrowly escapes death.
This clearly isn’t euvoluntary, since Jimbo’s BATNA is terrible, but it is voluntary. Jimbo isn’t explicitly coerced into purchasing over-priced water, but he is coerced by circumstance.
When I can get my wife to talk to me about economics, I usually ruin it by picking fights over moral intuition. She says the thing a normal person would say, like “Jorgé is an evil man for taking advantage of Jimbo,” and then I parrot back what I learned from Walter, “That’s not exploitation; Jorgé saved Jimbo’s life!”
I started to repeat this drama when visiting Sam a few months back. What I didn’t expect was that Sam would ask my wife to elaborate her thoughts. Instead of preaching the econ gospel, Sam was interested in my wife’s thought process. Obviously, I have a lot to learn about marriage.
This gave me an idea for something I’m tentatively calling “Clinical Economics”, which is only different from Experimental Philosophy in its problem domain. I want to play Aristotle and catalog peoples' reactions to these kinds of scenarios in order to look for patterns.
So, dear reader, will you please step into my office, and give me your thoughts on “Water in the Desert”? Here are some questions to get you started:
- Did Jorgé exploit Jimbo?
- Did the story make you feel indignant?
- Was Jorgé in the wrong? How do we weigh the good he did against his means of doing it?
- If you were in Jimbo’s position, would you be thankful or indignant, overall?
In future posts, we’ll be changing the thought-experiment slightly to see how that affects your evaluation of the scenario. We’ll be exploring the effects of initial endowments, pure luck, and bargaining power, with an eye keen to judgments about distributional justice.
For now, I’m all ears. Let’s hear what you have to say.