Monday, August 25, 2014

The Mother and Daughter Test

Sumner on Ozimek. The low-down: both gents agree that there's something deeply wrong with the standard paternalistic trope of "would you [want|let] your daughter do x, where x is an element of the set of morally unsavory activities that don't tend to inflict harm on others (unless, as both Scott and Adam note, the practice is illegal and therefore out of the reach of ordinary recourse against abuses).

So far as their arguments go, I agree wholeheartedly. Where I disagree is in the penumbra. You want to take away the daughter test, but what would you replace it with?

It's far too easy to cavalierly dismiss heuristics as the tools of a lazy mind. But the truth unsavory to the academic sensibilities is that they typical citizen relies heavily on little mental shortcuts because critical analysis is extremely demanding. Even the brightest minds in the academy, specialists who've spent their whole adult lives thinking about thorny social problems, regularly and routinely disagree, and occasionally, get it dead wrong. Ordinary constituents, particularly since they are confronted with the logic of elections, have every incentive to outsource their critical thinking faculties to the specialists, and what better specialist than the Wisdom of the Ages? Heuristics are a labor-saving device.

So if you wish to cast aside a heuristic, it makes little sense to urge folks to switch to a rigorous economic way of thinking in its stead. Why not offer a replacement heuristic? One, if luck might have it, is also time-honored and widely applicable. I refer, of course, to Plato's Divine Maxim.

Call it the mother-and-daughter test.

For private issues of morality, it's fine and good to ask yourself if you want your daughter to do x, where x is something naughty. Use that judgement to guide your private, personal associations if you wish. But for public issues, issues where you'd be willing to employ the truncheon of the state, ask if you'd let your mother do x—whether you'd fine or imprison dear ol' mom for doing whatever.

Yes, this is a nation (and ideally, a world) of free people, but to get folks to settle on that (unfortunately, increasingly rare) bit of moral intuition, the cheap approach is to swap out one small mental shortcut for another. Invert the implied relationship between sovereign and citizen. Ride the unicorn; don't let it ride you.

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?