Budget Constraints On Civilization
Posted on January 13, 2017
Ethics has a budget constraint, a fact that most people find embarrassing. In particular, any coherent ethical system places implicit dollar values on human lives. At the extreme, that follows from the fact that a society has limited resources. If you spend most of it protecting and preserving one particular life, there is less available for saving other lives.
Real life of course operates very far from that extreme boundary. Right wing politicians in particular betray the astonishingly low valuation they place on the lives of around a hundred million Americans they don’t personally know when they refuse to fund universal health care.
For that and other reasons I think it is no longer completely fair to describe America as a civilized country. It is not so much that our standards have slipped, though to a limited extent they have. It is rather that the bar has been raised by ethical progress in other civilized countries, which is the natural outcome of prosperity in a generally democratic and at least somewhat egalitarian country. That is, relaxing the budget constraint leads to a higher level of ethics. Other rich countries have universal health care, low levels of gun violence, and low levels of poverty. We don’t.
Our failings of ethical civilization have three interrelated sources: right wing ideology, extreme inequality, and nearly oligarchic rule. This shouldn’t be news.