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June 22, 2004


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I don't know how good a grasp of Hooker's internalizing cost theory I have from reading these two posts, but it seems to me like a theory of this form only applies to aspects of the moral code that are relatively stable. In those cases, "inculcating" beliefs in the next generation is like an education or socialization problem.

If large portions of the society have the wrong belief about something, though, inculcating the correct belief in the overwhelming majority of the following generation (including the children of the incorrect people) would require something more like indoctrination, and perhaps the violation of what are considered to be basic parental rights. In order to reject this scenario and still allow for values to change, I think that the transition from widespread bad beliefs to better ones should instead be seen as a multi-generational process involving less severe methods of inculcation.

To assess these cases of value change, first you would look at the issue of the benefits of having better beliefs & the costs of maintaining those beliefs once those beliefs are established, in order to calculate the net benefits per generation of having those beliefs once you've got 'em. Then you would look at various multi-generational processes for arriving at these beliefs, and compare them in terms of their costs, the incremental benefits during the transition generations, and how quickly they get to the point where the better beliefs are widespread. You could calculate a net cost of the transition period from these factors. To see if a transition process is worth it, or which process is better, or which of a set of possible better beliefs you should aim for, you'd have to combine the net transition period cost for each process with the net benefits per generation of having established the better beliefs from that process, perhaps using some sort of temporal discounting function to take into account uncertainty about the future (since you don't want to assume infinite future generations and give the net benefits per generation infinite weight).

I don't know how close this is to Hooker's theory, but I think it deals with your objection. It creates value transition problems that are much harder to assess than (already complicated) value maintenance problems, especially when you make everything probabilistic. However, I think we can still conclude, for instance, that since a gradual change of values on homosexuality won't be too painful, compared with the harms experienced by homosexuals of every generation in which homosexual activity is forbidden, it is worth working for the acceptance of gay couples, though not by any means available.

Hi Dan. If I understand your suggestion (and perhaps modifying it slightly to fit into one moral code), it looks like the ideal moral code would contain the following three rules:

(i) You are forbidden to feel free to engage in homosexual activity or parenting until, and only until, such time as successfully inculcating a rule permitting one to feel free to engage in such activity is cost-effective,

(ii) You are permitted to feel free to engage in homosexual activity or parenting when, and only when, successfully inculcating a rule permitting one to feel free to engage in such activity (such as this one) is cost-effective (call this time at which a critical mass is reached time t), and

(iii) You are required to work periodically to feel free to engage in homosexual activity and parenting (whatever such work comes to).

where the accumulative effect of the successful inculcation of (iii) will, over the generations, allow us to arrive at time t, thereby kicking in the permission for us to feel free to engage in such activity.

It's certainly a charitable proposal (if, in fact, it is the one you are offering), but I'm not sure, in the end, what to make of it. I could imagine that the overwhelming number of people who are so contemptuous toward homosexual activity and parenting would be just as contemptuous toward (iii), a rule requiring them to work periodically to feel free to engage in such activity (again, whatever such work comes to), and so the transitions costs for a code containing (iii) would seem to be just as astronomical as one containing (i) alone. But, even if not, it would seem that any code that prohibits homosexual activity and parenting on the compromise rule (iii) is still far too conservative--it would take far too long for the permissibility of feeling free to engage in such activity to kick in and, hence, it would forbid such a feeling for far too long into the future—or at least that's my intuition. Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

The postings on this topic are astute. Indeed, they point to a definite problem in my theory. As Dan notes, I construct the test so that the people into whom a moral code is to be inculcated are not ones already infected by some alternative code. Hence I refer to internalisation of the code by individuals in new generations. But this still leaves the difficulty of what code we are to imagine being accepted by the people teaching the code to the new generations. I admit this is a very serious difficulty. See my December 2003 Standford Encyclopedia article on rule-consequentialism:

I’m very unsure what the best response to this problem is. My hunch is that we should just imagine that the teachers of any code we are considering have internalised that code, and that we should ignore the costs and benefits of that internalisation by the teachers. Hence, my proposal is that we focus on a cost-benefit analysis of internalisation of this or that code by new generations, and ignore the effects of such internalisation by their teachers.

Again, I’m unsure this is the way to go. What is attractive about this way, however, is that it prevents prevailing moral attitudes from infecting the cost-benefit evaluation of alternative moral codes.

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