Two levels of decision: moral and political

There are two levels relevant to many situations. The first is a personal level (and what in some cases is a moral level, properly speaking), the second is a societal level (a political level).

One can see the distinction by looking at something like voting. At the personal level, how one votes in a federal election (say), statistically speaking, will make no difference to who is elected. In this sense, it is irrational to vote. However, one might belong to an organization composed of thousands of members, who meet to decide which candidate to support. The organization’s decision, i.e., at the societal level, about which candidate to support very well may make a difference in terms of who is elected.

Conflating these levels leads to confusion. For example, sometimes I ask people why one should vote in, say, a federal election. My reasoning is: one’s vote will not make a difference to the outcome of the election. The response is often: if everyone thought that way, then it would affect the election. My response is then: how one votes doesn’t affect how everyone votes. Usually, there is no response after this point. There might be various other reasons to vote, and perhaps, depending on one’s situation, it is therefore rational to vote, but not because it will affect who is elected.

That one’s vote will not make a difference does not commit one to thinking voting, in general, is irrelevant. Rather, it means that one’s focus should be directed to the relevant, i.e., societal, level, if one in fact wants to change which candidate is elected. It is only through the amplificatory affects of a social organization that one’s efforts can lead to this result. A one-citizen, one-vote system discludes this possibility vis a vis one’s vote itself.

We can say: the relevant level of decision making for various problems is the societal one, not the individual one. To take voting again, in Canada the compliance rate is about 60-65%. In Australia, a relevant decision was made at the societal level (a law was passed) such that, if one does not register at the voting booth, one is theoretically given a small fine. Voting compliance in Australia is around 95% because of this policy.

This sort of logic extends beyond voting, to any situation where one’s action will not make a relevant difference, but a group of people’s actions will make a relevant difference.

Utilitarians make a similar error. They think that what is ‘morally right’ is what is best for the most in the long-term. Yet if one responds: why should I act in such a way as to do what is best for the most? they have no response, except to repeat themselves.

For example, consider what Robert Wright says in a conversation with academic philosopher Peter Railton (transcribed from here):

“To me the moral premise is that human welfare, happiness, and so on, are better than the alternative. These are moral goods […] and so I basically come out as a kind of utilitarian, thinking the more of that stuff the better, and […] with that as a premise, you can go a long way. But if people say to me, “Where do you get that premise?” I have to stammer a little bit. On the one hand, I can say “Wait, you’re telling me you don’t think human welfare and happiness are better than the alternative?” and you rarely run into somebody who says “No, I don’t think that.” On the other hand, in a very technical, philosophical sense [… there is a question of] whether you can get a foothold that’s secure in a technical, philosophical sense, to do this kind of boot-strapping, and it leads to [the topic of] moral realism.”

With the distinction above, it is easy for one to agree that human welfare is better than not having human welfare, without thinking that actions that increase human welfare for the most people (i.e., Wright’s position) are stipulative of what is morally right. This tension can be resolved by noting that Wright is talking about a societal (political) level of decision, but describing it as if it were moral at the personal level. In the sense developed above, he is talking not about what is the morally (personally) right decision (i.e., what action is the right one for me to take?), then, but what might be a politically right decision (i.e., what action is the right one for a given social organization to take?).

2 thoughts on “Two levels of decision: moral and political

  1. Pingback: Morality and rational self-interest | Anthony Burgoyne

  2. Pingback: Frans de Waal, Robert Wright, and whether one should act ‘morally’ | Anthony Burgoyne

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