Politics... Again (3 of 2): The Ends

Some months ago, one of my best friends said something that stuck with me: it can be proven that child labor eventually elevates an entire community out of poverty.

I struggled with this until just this morning, when I realized that, for me, in this case especially: the ends don't justify the means. Even if, as that very same friend once said, "the ends are the only thing that can justify the means." The ends are obviously important. But even if–for example–child labor is scientifically proven to eventually help an entire country achieve financial improvements, it's not worth it. Not in my book. Find another way.

My beliefs may conclude with disaster.  (I doubt it, but...) But for my money, the immediate immorality of child labor trumps the eventual morality of a comfortable society. ...Even if none of those kids will suffer long-term negative effects.

Why can't I flip that switch in my head?  Believe you me: I have been trying.  Hard.  Ever since he said it. It's come up in my thoughts at least once a week since then. I've really though long and hard about it. ...But, try as I might, I can't let go of it.  It's wrong, and even if things will eventually be good, I can't abide it.

I find it fascinating that I am unable to "endure" the short-term suffering. On a personal level, the opposite is certainly true: I am more than willing to sacrifice my own rights, my own comforts, in order to make long-term gains. But forcing this on another is completely different.

This was covered in the Haidt talk, now that I think of it: morality is ranked on those pegs: wiling to personally experience, willing to personally commit, and willing to allow others to commit.

Fascinating stuff.


Victor said...

Your friend sounds like an interesting guy. Do I know him?

I don't think your issue is with short-term suffering though. We are hard-wired to take our morally intuited rules seriously -- not necessarily any specific moral intuitions, but whatever those intuitions are. We aren't wired for rational ethics, we seem to be biased towards a deontological ethical system, unfortunately.

You know the classic saw about calculus of lives, right? if you could save 5 lives by letting a runaway train kill one person, would you do it? How about if you had to pull a lever to re-rout the train to kill one person instead of 5? how about if you had to actually push the person under the train?

Our moral intuition rebels. For my money, it's because we evolved in a world without trains and levers, so we don't take murder by lever (or by train) as seriously as we do murder by pushing. It comes down to whether the blood is on your hands, or just splashed on your pants -- the illusory distinction between these situations is something we seem to be neurologically predisposed to take very, very seriously.

As long as we don't have our gut screaming "Taboo! Taboo!", we seem able to think rationally, but only until then.

Jeremy Rice said...


I actually struggled a bit with that phrase ("short term suffering") before shrugging it off and choosing to leave it ill-stated. The short-term suffering of finding the right term outweighed the long-term suffering of being wrong. ; )

But pulling in the train/lever analogies was an excellent addition to the topic. Thanks.

I'll introduce you to that friend someday, but I think you might not like him. : D