Jan 22 2013

Moral conflict in the dueling myth postulate

We can see from the previous discussion that it is trivially easy to imagine a situation in which two parties come into direct moral conflict over a single issue, owing almost entirely to their respective evaluations of the fairness of a system. Where one side sees a strong moral imperative to preserve a system, the other sees an equally-strong imperative to change the system completely. The conflict that arises therefore becomes about more than mere facts – it becomes a direct clash of two competing mythologies.

Let us consider for a moment a facile and hypothetical case example. A member of Parliament (MP Jones) proposes a bill that would raise the average amount of monthly income given to people receiving social assistance (welfare). A member from an opposing party (MP Nguyen) objects strongly to the idea:

The u-myth position (MP Jones)

The world is fundamentally unfair when it comes to welfare. A person receiving social assistance cannot afford anything more than the bare necessities*. It does not allow people to save any money, punishes them for working by clawing back their benefits, and is woefully inadequate in the event of any kind of fiscal emergency (an accident, an illness, the need to travel anywhere).

Because the world is fundamentally unfair, it is morally reprehensible to allow such a system to continue. Conversely, it is morally laudable to change such a system, if one is able. The people of Canada will not suffer if a relatively small portion of their tax money is reallocated to increase the monthly amount of the social assistance cheque. The state of Canada has a legal duty to its people to provide a certain level of care for its citizens, and a moral duty to ensure that people do not starve or die on the streets, and social assistance is the best method of doing that.

In fighting to change the unfairness within the system, my actions are morally laudable. By opposing this change, MP Nguyen’s actions are morally reprehensible. By attempting to justify and preserve a system in which unfairness is propagated, MP Nguyen’s beliefs are morally reprehensible.

The f-myth position (MP Nguyen)

The world is fundamentally fair when it comes to welfare. The system as it exists now provides the necessities to those who need them, and does not pay for profligate luxuries for those who have not earned them. By ensuring that welfare is not a viable way of life, the system encourages people to seek employment in order to pursue a more comfortable standard of living. It also discourages abuse of the system by those who could work but choose to collect a cheque instead.

Because the world is fundamentally fair, it is morally reprehensible to change such a system. Conversely, it is morally laudable to defend the current system, or at least to fight to maintain the elements that make the system fair. The people of Canada should not be taxed to pay for a system that provides excesses to people who have not earned it. At the same time, the state is balancing its duty to provide a minimum standard of living to all Canadians.

In fighting to maintain the fairness of the system, my actions are morally laudable. By attempting to change those elements of the system that ensure its fairness, MP Jones’ actions are morally reprehensible. By arguing against a system that is fundamentally fair, MP Jones’ beliefs are morally reprehensible.

You will notice in this admittedly simplified example that I am intentionally avoiding discussions of the pragmatic elements of policy. Whether or not increasing welfare would indeed encourage people to stop working is a discussion that will happen later. Rather I am intentionally delimiting myself to the moral elements of the argument – namely, whether or not such a change is fair.

You will also notice that both sides are, to themselves, making an identical argument that the world should be fair. Neither of them are saying “I’m rich, so fuck it”, or something of that nature. These beliefs too likely enter these conversations at some level, but for the time being let us put them aside.

My goal here is to spell out in explicit language the moral argument for fairness being made by both sides. This is the central dogma of the dueling myth conjecture: moral arguments can manifest themselves as the product of belief in contradicting myths about the fairness of the world. Based on those myths, justifications are built from a set of moral axioms. Conflicts in the axioms springing from that myth take on moral significance, as actions and beliefs in opposition to fairness are seen as morally reprehensible.

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*It is perhaps worth pointing out that I do not personally believe that social assistance provides enough for the bare necessities. The Canadian social assistance program is poorly designed and poorly administrated and is in severe need of improvement, but for the sake of argument in this case, let us assume it provides exactly what is needed to live and not a dollar more.

1 comment

  1. 1

    I get this here in that both people believe they are doing the fair thing; in fact, unlike in the US, we have the position of increasing the level of welfare assistance as opposed to keeping it the same, not the US debate of ‘the absolute minimum or none at all.’

    Perhaps the real discussion here is in what people mean by ‘enough to cover necessities’ or a ‘profligate luxury.’ Is being able to pay for internet access a luxury? I’d say no, since having internet access can be very helpful in applying for work, and many employers want people to apply online, and it’s pretty much how people gather information and communicate.

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