Material Prosperity Is Immoral

September 26, 2007 § 53 Comments

Well, OK, not really. But having as much material prosperity as it is possible for one to have is immoral. Which is to say, greed is immoral.

What is interesting though, and what I would like to discuss here, is that this doesn’t merely apply to individual persons. It also applies to transcendent entities such as countries and, what I will focus on here, economic systems.

One of the credal tenets of modern global capitalism is that maximizing material prosperity is compatible with the common good. In general, that is, maximizing some quantitative measure of prosperity (say GDP, or perhaps the annual income of the poorest person in a polity – this criticism applies equally well to a socialist conception of maximal prosperity as to a capitalist conception) is thought to be compatible with the common good.

This is, I believe, provably false: maximizing material prosperity (however defined) is in fact demonstrably, and in a very general way, incompatible with the common good. An actual proof with all the rigor the word “proof” implies would require more than a blog post can deliver, but I’ll attempt an outline of the gist of such a proof in this post.

At any given point in time, the system of global capitalism is defined in part by the billions of rules of which it consists. Suppose that in choosing those rules we are not constrained by concern for the common good. Under this unconstrained condition it is possible to achieve a quantitative prosperity value of [Pmax].

Now suppose we further constrain ourselves to choosing rules which are compatible with the common good. Our morally constrained economic system cannot do all the things that the morally unconstrained one can do. The morally unconstrained system has every material capability that the constrained one has, and more. There is nothing that the constrained system can do that the unconstrained one cannot, in terms of maximizing some quantitiative utilitarian measure of prosperity – any quantitative utilitarian measure of prosperity at all. So [Pmax-good] – the same quantitative measure of material prosperity we made of the unconstrained system, applied against the constrained system – will always be lower than [Pmax].

To be really geeky about it, an economic system unfettered by concern for the common good has many more degrees of freedom than a morally constrained system. As a result it has more free energy available to maximize whatever quantitative measure of prosperity we have defined. In every real-world case** the morally unconstrained system is capable of being more materially prosperous than the morally constrained system.

This same kind of argument can be applied to maximizing individual wealth; but for some reason people already intuit that a man who is literally as wealthy as he could possibly be is acting immorally, that is, is operating under the vice of greed. What is perhaps new here, or at least counterintuitive to the American cult of success, is that this is just as true institutionally: that is, transcendent entities like economies and countries which maximize their material wealth, under any quantitative measure of material wealth at all (including egalitarian measures), are necessarily doing evil.

The bottom line is that poverty is a sign (though not a dispositive sign) of virtue, and wealth is a sign (though not a dispositive sign) of vice: not merely in the case of individuals but in the case of economic systems. If we are not self consciously making choices that we know are reducing our material prosperity from what it could be, we are doing evil.

** In the science of statistical mechanics we allow for the possibility-in-principle of all of the molecules of a gas spontaneously ending up on one side of a box instead of all mixed up together. This doesn’t happen in the real world. Economic systems the rules of which are built on the premise of maximizing prosperity cannot cheat entropy in the real world any more than a real bottle of nitrogen can cheat entropy.

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§ 53 Responses to Material Prosperity Is Immoral

  • August says:

    I don’t see anything real here. What is as much material prosperity as possible? In practical terms, no one can acheive this state. Secondly, if it were acheivable, there is nothing to suggest it could not be done morally, by creating value for others, and not by harming others, which you implicitly assume in your post.An economy wouldn’t even work without morality. The difference seems to be that you think the morality must be imposed from without, while what really happens is each individual applies his morality at the transaction level. If the people are highly moral, the economy actually grows.Consider a completely immoral people. They would lie, cheat, and steal. Consequently, anyone with capital would hoard it. No lending or investment would ensue, because the minute someone did that, it would be stolen. In effect there would be no economy, just mayhem, as people consistently fought over existing wealth, but could not make anymore.Consider now a moral people. You can freely lend, openly work, and accrue capital because you know the fruits of your labor will not be stolen from you. Wealth creation becomes the norm in this society.Global capitalism tends to increase material prosperity, but there is no clear way to maximize it. Ultimately, you have to sell a product; anyone who runs around trying to maximize prosperity will likely go broke. You do also seem to be assuming a completely static system in which the most prosperous must be taking away from the least. But that isn’t true. The farmer takes an asset- land- and by working with it and adding other inputs to it, grows food, something that was not there before, and would not have been there if he had not done so.Then he sells it to people, who by virtue of buying it, show that they believe it is more valuable than what they pay for it.Which is how the common good is really defended. By allowing individuals to consider their own good as much as possible. Otherwise, men, well meaning or otherwise, will injure many in the name of the common good while making decisions God alone should make.

  • TS says:

    When feeling dour, I begin to suspect that Christians should be reversely Darwinistic, in that we should be an endangered species. Certainly pacifism argues for that. I recall a friend telling me that he’s around because all his ancestors hid out in caves during the Civil War.But I know you’re quite wrong in this particular post because it’s not what the Church teaches. Being materially well-off is not wrong. (If it were, then the Vatican should sell all its art and buildings immediately if not even sooner.) Also economically-speaking there’s nothing to suggest that wealth is a zero-sum game. Finally, wealth is at least partially the byproduct of natural virtues like discipline, frugality, forward-thinking etc…But I do wish you’d send me all your money. I’m just looking out for your virtue. *grin*

  • Rodak says:

    Zippy–This is certainly an interesting post. Why do I have the nagging suspicion that you wrote to bait a person, or persons, unknown?

  • zippy says:

    <>Being materially well-off is not wrong.<>Ah, but I am not saying that simply being materially well off to some extent is wrong. I am saying that a rule-making process designed to maximize some quantitative measure of material prosperity – even one that treats material prosperity as <>co-equal<> to the common good more generally rather than as subordinate to it – is inherently immoral. As is a system like the one commenter august describes, wherein the rules are set to maximize material prosperity of individuals, leaving moral consideration of the common good otherwise strictly in the hands of individuals.It is in the nature of every good economic system that the common good comes before, and trumps, measures of material prosperity.If I’d intended to say “it is bad to be wealthy” then even someone as pedantic as I am could probably have said so in fewer words. 8^]

  • zippy says:

    <>Consider a completely immoral people. They would lie, cheat, and steal. Consequently, anyone with capital would hoard it. No lending or investment would ensue, because the minute someone did that, it would be stolen. In effect there would be no economy, just mayhem, as people consistently fought over existing wealth, but could not make anymore.<>That doesn’t meet the criteria I gave for making rules though. The criteria wasn’t “completely immoral”, it was “maximize material prosperity”.In what I called the unconstrained economic system, rules are made in order to maximize some measure of material prosperity, period. In many cases – that is, for many particular rules – this will mean that the particular rule and the common good cohere: that is, the rule in question will both serve the common good <>and<> add to the maximization of material prosperity. In many other cases they will not cohere: the common good will not be served by the particular rule, but the maximization of material prosperity <>will<> be served by that rule. For this reason, the morally unconstrained (that is, evil) system will necessarily be more materially prosperous than the good.

  • Tom says:

    Zippy:Aren’t you merely asserting that [Pmax] is achieved by violating one or more common good constraints?Also, your claim that “a man who is <>literally as wealthy as he could possibly be<> is acting immorally” needs to account for the man who cannot possibly have enough food for the day.

  • zippy says:

    <>Aren’t you merely asserting that [Pmax] is achieved by violating one or more common good constraints?<>Yep. It is fairly trivial as a result, and yet it is amazing how much resistance it encounters. Americans realio, trulio want to believe that maxmimizing wealth is compatible with doing what is morally right, as some general principle. Thus the need to state it in a way which covers many of the usual objections.<>Also, your claim that "a man who is literally as wealthy as he could possibly be is acting immorally" needs to account for the man who cannot possibly have enough food for the day.<>Good point. It should carry the disclaimer “this does not apply to any person presently below the subsistence level.” It probably would still apply to a terrifically troubled third-world economy, but perhaps only to a trivial extent since getting food on the table takes priority.(On second thought I am not so sure. It isn’t as though it is impossible for a man below the subsistence level to do something morally wrong in pursuit of food).But to global capitalism, or to the US economy, it definitely applies.

  • August says:

    Your “unconstrained” model simply cannot exist. That’s why I pointed out the completely immoral cannot beat the moral. Trying to maximize material prosperity isn’t possible. Nor is serving the common good by standing off in the distance and making moral pronouncements possible. That’s why the socialists failed. They decided a certain outcome was desired and forced people toward that goal. They failed consistently, both in terms of material wealth, and in terms of their stated “moral” goals.Just attempting to maximize material wealth would open up a lot of disagreement. Do those who love Prada have to give up their handbags? In terms of material wealth, the name brand seems irrelevant. Should we force them to spend those thousands on cheaper, but more handbags so that their material wealth is maximized?To use force would destroy the whole idea of an “unconstrained” system anyway.Which makes me suspicious that rodak is right. I’ve seen some of your other arguments, and it seems here you are arguing, however indirectly, force against others for some nebulous common good. Which would be similar to arguing we should kill an innocent in order to save humanity.But I know you would never argue that!

  • zippy says:

    <>Your "unconstrained" model simply cannot exist.<>That is kind of like saying that the ideal gas law can’t apply in reality because there is no such thing as an ideal gas. Funny how hot air balloons still go up though.This is merely a matter of what the people who make economic rules see themselves as doing. If they see themselves as making rules which promote the common good as something which trumps economic prosperity, we get a constrained system in my parlance. If they see themselves as making rules in an attempt to maximize some (any) quantitative utilitarian measure of material prosperity (perhaps assuming as you appear to have above that promotion of the common good follows indirectly through the voluntary acts of individuals), we get an unconstrained system. The rest follows quite directly. There is such a thing as being too materially prosperous in any particular circumstance, because the only way to become that prosperous in that circumstance is to do evil.(As I said to Tom, it is almost embarrassing how obvious this is. But it encounters enormous resistance nonetheless because of our cult of prosperity).<>That's why I pointed out the completely immoral cannot beat the moral.<>As far as I can tell it remains an odd claim, entirely disconnected from the previous discussion and from anything I said, since neither of the guidelines I proposed for making rules involves anything “completely immoral”. (I’m not sure the concept is even coherent, frankly, since evil always has to work with the good that is given in order to do anything at all).<>Just attempting to maximize material wealth would open up a lot of disagreement.<>Sure. People disagree about a lot of things, including how to measure prosperity. It doesn’t matter, because the result is general and applies to <>any<> measure of material prosperity (capitalist or socialist or any other economic-ist); even measures like “least number of people starve to death”.<>Which makes me suspicious that rodak is right. I've seen some of your other arguments, and it seems here you are arguing, however indirectly, force against others for some nebulous common good. Which would be similar to arguing we should kill an innocent in order to save humanity.<>What I am doing is arguing (I think conclusively) against a particular mythology: the mythology which says that it is morally good to structure economic rules in a way which maximizes material prosperity (under any scheme: my argument is equal opportunity in that it puts the lie to socialist/Marxist mythology as well as globalist/capitalist mythology).If all you are saying is that you suspect me of being politically authoritarian – that is, of rejecting modern liberal mythology in all of its forms, whether capitalist or communist or whatever – then we can put the speculation to rest. Yes, I am authoritarian in my politics. Yes, I reject modern liberalism in all of its forms. Not that I’ve made a secret of it.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    All right, Zippy, I’ll take the bait for a little while longer. (It was me, Rodak.)Suppose I “constrain” my eating of breakfast by the rule that it must not conflict with my wearing a red shirt, or my having short hair, or some other *totally unconnected* sort of thing. I say that if ever eating breakfast conflicted with my doing this thing, by gummy, I would refuse to eat breakfast. Whether this ever actually, in the real world, results in my missing breakfast *even one time* depends on whether there’s any actual conflict between my eating breakfast and my having short hair or whatever.You can’t decide a priori that I’ll be eating fewer breakfasts under this “constraint” until you know this. Abstract considerations about degrees of freedom don’t tell you, because the two may be the sorts of things that simply don’t come into conflict.This will be even more relevant if we’re talking about a case where the one thing actually helps to bring about the other. So suppose we’re considering taking moderate daily exercise and sleeping well at night. You can’t know whether my willingness to “sacrifice” sleeping well at night to my moderate daily exercise will actually result in my sleeping less well until you know how the two are causally related. If it turns out that the exercise actually _helps_ me to sleep better, then my weirdly-noble hypothetical willingness to keep exercising even if I sleep worse will be a fifth wheel. It will make no difference to anything, because in point of fact I’ll be able to have both, since the one is actually helpful to the other.Similarly, the purely abstract fact that your rule-makers who are pursuing the common good have more hypothetical constraints on the amount of wealth they will have in the overall economic system tells us nothing about whether there will be less wealth with these constraints in place until we know whether the two things actually conflict, whether one (morally good laws) actually helps the other (overall prosperity in the country), and so forth. Which has to be decided by looking at the actual causal relations between the two *in the case of a whole system* (not just an individual), not by a priori considerations.I don’t know if I can put it any more clearly than that. The examples are actually meant to be enlightening, but I don’t know if they are.

  • zippy says:

    <>Whether this ever actually, in the real world, results in my missing breakfast *even one time* depends on whether there's any actual conflict between my eating breakfast and my having short hair or whatever.<>Yep. If there is <>never<> a conflict – if a conflict is <>never possible<> – between any specific proposed rule** directed at increasing material prosperity and the common good, then this would fall apart.IOW, assuming that the pursuit of material prosperity literally <>can never in principle<> conflict with the common good in any particular instance whatsoever, it follows that material prosperity <>never does in fact<> conflict with the common good under any rule set.But despite Rodak’s speculation I wasn’t trying to needle you. I already did that at W4! I was just bringing what came out of that discussion over to here.** (out of not just the billions of actual ones involved in a massive modern economy but all conceivable ones which could be)

  • Rodak says:

    Because I was not sure that I was understanding what Zippy is getting at with this post–or how he was connecting the dots–in an effort to grasp it, I concocted a concept that became too complicated and wordy for a combox comment.Any interested parties can view my musings here:http://rrrrodak.blogspot.com/2007/09/readings-gittin-zippy-wid-it.html

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    Well, actually, you could make up bizarre circumstances in which almost any two things conflict. It’s sort of like background information in epistemology. What is relevant to what depends on the other information you have. So we could make up weird circumstances in which I would have to miss breakfast in order to wear short hair–e.g., if there were some person who was going to come into my house once a week and steal my breakfast if I had short hair.But we know that this is enormously unlikely in the real world. This is why we don’t take the fact that I have short hair as evidence that I probably miss breakfast on a regular basis.I could also make up circumstances under which I would sleep less well at night after exercising moderately. But that’s not the way to bet. Our empirical evidence shows that regular moderate exercise usually helps you to sleep better at night.So it doesn’t need to be as strong as “not possible in principle for them to conflict.” It’s enough if, for all we can tell, they appear not to conflict, or even if morally good rule sets tend on the whole to bring about greater prosperity in a society.This is, however, an empirical matter. Talk of “constraints” is really irrelevant unless we know already and independently that the two are negatively correlated in the direction of moral law-sets tending to make for less prosperity.

  • zippy says:

    It is obvious though that productivity (and therefore material measures of prosperity) can in principle be increased by doing immoral things (and therefore by making rules which permit or require those things). GDP can be increased for example by harvesting unproductive people for their organs and installing their organs in otherwise productive people who need them. I never even considered that anyone might dispute the existence <>in principle<> of utilitarian prosperity-increasing rules which are immoral. Maybe that is part of the impasse. Their in principle possibility is all I need for the rest to follow. Maximizing [Pmax] is not in fact constrained by the moral law: it can do literally anything and everything that the constrained economy can do in order to maximize quantitative prosperity measures, and vastly more.Notice that I have not so much as claimed even that the present economy or any particular economy in fact rests on an immoral rule-set. All I have claimed is that <>in principle<> an economy operating under billions of rules unfettered by the moral law can produce more prosperity (under any quantitative utilitarian measure) than one constrained by the moral law.That does, I think, have implications about what we should expect of our rule-making efforts. (That is, we shouldn’t expect a morally good rule-making proces to also maximize utilitarian prosperity). But drawing out implications is different from the baseline claim itself. The baseline claim itself seems to me to be unassailable. Just as the morally unconstrained bad guys in war have more material warmaking capability <>other things equal<> than the morally constrained good guys, the morally unconstrained bad guys in economic matters have more material wealth-making capability <>other things equal<> than the morally constrained good guys. (If they didn’t then evil would be literally no temptation at all). Willingness to do evil implies – ceterus paribus – a greater <>material<> capability in any endeavor, because the evil guys can do everything <>materially<> that the good guys can do, and much more.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    “Willingness to do evil implies – ceterus paribus – a greater material capability in any endeavor, because the evil guys can do everything materially that the good guys can do, and much more.”That’s assuming that doing the evil doesn’t have as an indirect consequence that it makes you do worse in the system as a whole at the material endeavor in question.For example, it might look like harvesting the “unproductive” would increase GDP, and it might do so in the very, very short run, but consider the overall fallout for society. If the society starts falling apart in terms of trust relations, doesn’t this impact prosperity even in the medium run? If people who are now productive get scared that they are going to be harvested when they become unproductive and emigrate, that could have a negative impact, and so forth. It’s really not obvious at all that the various evil things that people could do to make money (slavery, selling unwanted babies for food, etc.) would *in the society as a whole and in even the medium-long run* create a more prosperous country overall.For that matter, those of us who believe in God might even take seriously (don’t yell “what??” too loudly) the possibility that God materially blesses a nation that doesn’t allow horrible things to be done.I think there’s a something to be said for the maxim “America is great because she is good, and when she is not good she will not be great.”

  • zippy says:

    <>That's assuming that doing the evil doesn't have as an indirect consequence that it makes you do worse in the system as a whole at the material endeavor in question.<>Not quite. What I am assuming is that it is not <>always without exception<> the case that doing evil has as a consequence (directly or indirectly) a negative or zero impact on the material quantity measured. That is, I assume that <>sometimes<>, in billions of acts of rule-making, it is possible to increase the material quantity by making an evil rule. The mythology upon which my assault is directed is exactly that mythology-of-prosperity which implicitly believes that doing the right thing literally <>never<> entails making a material sacrifice. I think it is true – obviously true – that doing the right thing very often does involve making a material sacrifice. And as long as that is true, the rest follows.<>... the possibility that God materially blesses a nation that doesn't allow horrible things to be done.<>No rational argument whatsoever – especially one rooted in the degrees of freedom in a phase space – can stand against the <>reductio ad miracle<>. So that isn’t a special limitation on my argument. The argument “God could decide to do things differently than what you say” has no refutation.

  • Rodak says:

    “At any given point in time, the system of global capitalism is defined in part by the billions of rules of which it consists.”Zippy–Are you certain that the above statement is true? Is it not possible that global capitalism is a fairly simple organism, which can be easily diagrammed, but which is designed in such a way that it reflexively responds to environmental stimuli in ways that serve to a) nourish and grow it; and b) preserve its existence?I.e.– perhaps there are not “billions of rules” defining global capitalism, but rather an innate capacity to respond reflexively, in a theoretically infinite number of ways, to contingencies which arise in the pursuit of material prosperity; material prosperity being the raison d’etre of the capitalist organism, which is an omnivorous predator.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I certainly see that individual acts and refraining from acts can be required that lessen individual prosperity. As a purely observational matter, combined with moral knowledge, that’s pretty clear. What I question is whether this is true of rules for an economic system as a whole. Put it that what A gains on the swings B loses on the roudabouts. (Brit authors are always using this metaphor. I gather swings and roundabouts are British playground equipment on which you can gain and lose something or other. But I’ve never found out what they are. It sounds good, though.) Or that what A might gain by pursuing material prosperity at the expense of the good seems to have bad consequences for society as a whole. This could mean that it is possible for a country’s rules to be moral while maximizing prosperity for the country in the long run even though an individual can fairly easily maximize his personal prosperity by doing wrong.

  • zippy says:

    <>What I question is whether this is true of rules for an economic system as a whole.<>If it is true of acts then it is also true of rules which govern those acts, so we’re half way there.<>Put it that what A gains on the swings B loses on the roudabouts.<>Economics is absolutely, positively, most definitely not a zero-sum game. It is absolutely not <>reasonable<> to think this, though again one might assert it to be the case as an miraculous act of God. Material prosperity is absolutely not perfectly correlated in every conceivable instance to choosing what is morally right.<>Or that what A might gain by pursuing material prosperity at the expense of the good seems to have bad consequences for society as a whole.<>Our “player” in this case <>is<> society as a corporate thing, that is, as a whole.

  • Lydia McGrew says:

    I certainly agree wholeheartedly that economics is not a zero-sum game. This is very important to free-market analysis. I meant that what A gainst on the swings B loses on the roundabouts *when A is doing something immoral*. So, for example, if A literally enslaves B, B loses materially. If A sells pornography, B may become addicted to it and end up losing his job as a consequence, and so forth.Now, it’s certainly true that an act needn’t have bad consequences, still less bad material consequences, to be immoral. The question to me is whether legalized and systematized bad moral acts tend as a matter of actual fact to have bad material consequences for the society as a whole, so that outlawing those acts can be expected to lead to greater prosperity for the whole society in the long run.

  • August says:

    If two groups have the same vocabulary, but one has grammar and the other does not, the group with grammar will be able to convey meaning more often than the group that does not.The group unconstrained by grammar does appear to have more possibilities in a purely mathematical sense, but the possibilities outside the boundaries of grammar by and large do not convey meaning. Thus those constrained by grammar shall convey more meaning than those who are not.Similarly, material wealth is a by-product of free trade among a moral people. No one can seek to maximize it, in part because the economy is involved with a lot more than material wealth. We trade in intangibles all the time.

  • Tom says:

    “<>Aren’t you merely asserting that [Pmax] is achieved by violating one or more common good constraints?<>Yep. It is fairly trivial as a result, and yet it is amazing how much resistance it encounters.”Yes, well, begging the question has that effect.Have you accounted for all the Scriptural evidence that prosperity is maximized by following the Law?<>I think it is true - obviously true - that doing the right thing very often does involve making a material sacrifice.<>Are you talking about maximizing prosperity, or maximizing the instantaneous rate of change of prosperity?

  • zippy says:

    <>The question to me is whether legalized and systematized bad moral acts tend as a matter of actual fact to have bad material consequences for the society as a whole, so that outlawing those acts can be expected to lead to greater prosperity for the whole society in the long run.<>Even if they <>tend<> that way it remains the case that a morally unconstrained rule-making process can take advantage of particular cases where an evil rule is capable of producing more material prosperity. Your position, it seems to me, has to be that no evil rule is <>ever<> capable of producing more material prosperity than could be produced in its absence: that creating evil rules is always and without exception not merely morally evil but also materially counterproductive with respect to our utilitarian measure of prosperity (whatever it may be).The invocation of “tendencies” and “the long run” don’t address the fact that the unconstrained system can do literally everything that the constrained system can do. In effect, your argument has to be that literally all the additional possibilities raised by morally unconstraining the system of rules are incapable of producing a single iota more of material prosperity: that an omniscient Demiurge who cares nothing for morality would be literally incapable of squeezing any more juice out of the unconstrained system than he could squeeze out of the constrained one, and so, despite the fact that he cares not a whit for what is morally good and cares <>only<> to maximize the number, he would still in every conceivable case do the morally good thing.

  • brandon field says:

    <>So [Pmax-good] – the same quantitative measure of material prosperity we made of the unconstrained system, applied against the constrained system – will always be lower than [Pmax].<>But what if Pmax fell within the constrained phase space? I’m not certain that Pmax <>has<> to fall outside of the moral constraints, especially if our metric of material prosperity consists of some integral value over the members of the society — or does that count as considering the “common good”?When you are considering a localized maximization of prosperity (which in practice is really all that we can consider, no?), I would agree; certain (many?) choices that would locally increase prosperity are immoral. But you defined Pmax as the <>global<> maximum of your prosperity function, and I don’t see why that would necessarily be outside of the global moral bounds. (In fact, I don’t even see why the global morality bounds even need to be continuous functions over your prosperity phase space; it seems like they may only exist locally, and they might not even produce distinct regions).I guess I’m having trouble seeing the topology of economic theory, but that’s probably because the only economic experience I have is one class that took great pains to avoid any mention of calculus. Half way through the semester, when I figured out that when economists say “margin” they really meant “derivative”, it made so much more sense.

  • zippy says:

    <>Have you accounted for all the Scriptural evidence that prosperity is maximized by following the Law?<>We aren’t using the term “prosperity” the same way. I am specifically (and I’ve been explicit about this) using it to refer to (any) quantitative utilitarian measure of prosperity, e.g. Gross Domestic Product. Are you suggesting that Scripture is referring to Gross Domestic Product, or some other quantitative utilitarian measure of material prosperity?

  • zippy says:

    Ah, now the truth of Rodak’s initial observation comes out: I was trying to provoke Brandon’s input!<>But what if Pmax fell within the constrained phase space?<>That is possible <>in principle<>: it seems to be the mathematical equivalent of the <>argument ad miracle<> unless it is the case that <>most conceivable rules<> are also morally good rules. The opposite seems to be the case though.Maybe Tom thinks I am begging the question because of this abstract possibility. You’ve gotta start somewhere though. I think the morally unconstrained phase space is vastly larger than the morally constrained phase space, and that on its face there are a great many immoral things that can be done to increase a utilitarian number. I know that if I were put in charge of a large corporation and also in charge of making all of the rules under which it operates, I could make it vastly wealthier according to just about any quantitative metric if I were not morally constrained in my actions. A global first-world economy situated in a larger world is just the same kind of thing writ a bit larger. <>(In fact, I don't even see why the global morality bounds even need to be continuous functions over your prosperity phase space; it seems like they may only exist locally, and they might not even produce distinct regions).<>That is very interesting. But if anything it seems to me to suggest that the unconstrained part of the phase space is vastly larger than the constrained.

  • zippy says:

    <>If two groups have the same vocabulary, but one has grammar and the other does not, the group with grammar will be able to convey meaning more often than the group that does not.<>Yes. The unconstrained system can adopt grammar in order to maximize material prosperity. As a material matter the unconstrained system can do anything and everything that the constrained system can do. “Unconstrained” doesn’t mean “has no rules”; it means “is not constrained by morality in adopting rules”.

  • Tom says:

    <>Are you suggesting that Scripture is referring to Gross Domestic Product, or some other quantitative utilitarian measure of material prosperity?<>I’m saying that Scripture is referring to material prosperity. The implications regarding quantitative utilitarian measures of material prosperity are straightforward.Are there GDP forecast models that account for smiting?

  • brandon field says:

    <>I was trying to provoke Brandon's input!<>Well, then let me say that mentioning entropy is a sure-fire way of doing just that! (Although in this case, I couldn’t find a way to bring entropy into my original comment).I hadn’t completely digested the entire comment thread when I commented this morning, but now that I have, I think that the more legitimate <>sed contra<> argument would be with the original premise of economics phase space.<>I know that if I were put in charge of a large corporation and also in charge of making all of the rules under which it operates, I could make it vastly wealthier according to just about any quantitative metric if I were not morally constrained in my actions.<>Because here, you are talking about a local maximization of prosperity. (When I say “local” and “global”, I am using them in the mathematical sense). You can determine local gradients of prosperity and, as Tom pointed out, maximize the instantaneous rate of change of prosperity. Some/most of the steepest gradient directions will blocked by moral constraints.But, these moral constraints are not global. To try to present an example: it would usually be immoral to increase profitability by reducing the wages of your workers. But starting a factory in a different location where the worker wages are lower is not necessarily immoral, although you might be in the same objective location in the phase space. My point is that your moral constraints will not necessarily produce distinct topological segments of the prosperity phase space. (Intrinsically evil constraints will, but the particular constraints on morality will not). So, my point is with this construction, I don’t think that you would be able to reasonably talk about any sort of maximization analysis on a global scale, but only on a local scale, and then it makes no sense to talk about the relative sizes of the phase spaces.

  • zippy says:

    <>I'm saying that Scripture is referring to material prosperity. The implications regarding quantitative utilitarian measures of material prosperity are straightforward.<>It might be better if you spelled it out. I’m skeptical that you can get to “GDP will be numerically maximized when economic rule-makers make moral rules” as a doctrine.

  • zippy says:

    <>So, my point is with this construction, I don't think that you would be able to reasonably talk about any sort of maximization analysis on a global scale, but only on a local scale, and then it makes no sense to talk about the relative sizes of the phase spaces.<>Well, there is global in a purely abstract sense and there is global understood as all of the phase space accessible from here by making or altering discrete rules. The number of ways that discrete rules can be made or altered <>from here<> under moral constraint is vastly smaller than the number of ways rules can be made or altered <>from here<> without moral constraint. You are right to point out that that is localized in a sense (though I consider that localization part of the problem definition); but the unconstrained degrees of freedom are still vastly larger than the constrained and contain everything within the constrained.Granted there are temporal matters too, but these can I think be reduced to the metric: that is, whether we are trying to maximize peak GDP versus sustainable GDP, etc., are actually different possible metrics, and this argument apples to any particular utilitarian metric.

  • brandon field says:

    <>The number of ways that discrete rules can be made or altered <>from here <>under moral constraint is vastly smaller than the number of ways rules can be made or altered <>from here<> without moral constraint.<>See, I have been considering “from here” to be the mathematical definition of “local”. Maybe as our resident mathematician, Tom could weigh in, but for engineering purposes, this is what I’ve been using.It does matter, because I agree with Tom and Lydia that the global Pmax will be located within the phase space that does not allow for intrinsically evil actions, as long as your quantitative measure of prosperity is defined with wide enough terms. (If you define your measure of prosperity as “Zippy’s bank account”, then I agree that the global maximum Pmax will exist outside of the moral constraints, but I suspect that even using something only as wide as “GDP” as your measure of prosperity, you will find Pmax inside the bounds of the intrinsically evil constraints. I have no hard evidence for this, except for my gut understanding of the natural law and the psychology of productivity in workers, and maybe this is where we disagree). Now, with respect to local maximization of Pmax (which is what you’ve been talking about all along, I see), I am in complete agreement. The directions that you can take from any given location within the economic phase space are constrained by morals, and I suspect (from the same gut feelings I mentioned above) that the directions of sharpest increase <>and<> sharpest decrease will both be constrained by moral considerations (i.e: randomly executing your workers will bring a sharp <>decrease<> in prosperity). I do have to say that I’m not completely comfortable with the idea of reducing morality considerations to n-dimensional phase space. That might be because I’ve never seen it done before, but it might be because I don’t see how “prosperity” can be a continuous (or even differentiable) function across the entirety of any sort of morality considerations, which you sort of need if you’re going to consider maximization from a mathematical standpoint.I also think — and I alluded to it parenthetically above — that the location of Pmax will be a strong function of the particular quantitative measure that you pick, and then your argument doesn’t necessarily apply to <>any<> metric.Let me say that in general, I agree with your statement that maximizing prosperity <>is<> incompatible with the common good, at least under the commonly defined quantitative measures that are used, and certainly with respect to local maximizations. But I don’t think that your argument generalizes quite as far as you are taking it. King St. Louis of France, whom you mentioned to have personal devotion to, might be one counter-example, as a moral person of material prosperity.

  • brandon field says:

    (As a side note, Zippy, it appears that we have flipped sides of the local vs. global thought patterns from our NFP debate. In the present debate, I’m trying to argue from a global perspective, and in the NFP debate, I am trying to argue from a local perspective. I don’t know what that means, but I was trying to understand how our perspectives relate to our opinions and that occurred to me. With regard to the NFP debate, I had a chance to speak with John and Shelia Kippley this summer at the La Leche League International conference, and I’m still working on continuing that debate).

  • zippy says:

    <>But I don't think that your argument generalizes quite as far as you are taking it.<>It may be that I have given the impression that I take it further than I in fact take it. I am not saying that material prosperity is immoral (the headline was a provocation, immediately modified in the lede). I am saying that it is always possible for an economic system to be quantitatively more prosperous by unburdening its rule-making of more general concern for the common good: that the common good takes precedence over and trumps material prosperity; that serving the common good in our economic rule-making has a quantitative cost, however measured. (Note that I am not saying that unburdening itself from the common good will in itself make an economic system more quantitatively prosperous).I don’t understand the invocation of intrinsic immorality. Morality in general constrains action. That a rule-maker must first serve the common good and consider (say) GDP in itself subordinate to the service of the common good significantly constrains his actions as rule-maker. Different moral classifications of acts don’t seem to alter that general point.<>I also think -- and I alluded to it parenthetically above -- that the location of Pmax will be a strong function of the particular quantitative measure that you pick, and then your argument doesn't necessarily apply to any metric.<>Part of the reason I think it applies to any quantitative utilitarian metric is that I don’t think the common good supervenes over quantitative economic metrics, and what I had in mind was ordinary metrics of prosperity. But you are right that it can’t be purely arbitrary: say I defined a function P where P = 1 when any Catholic contributes a dollar to the Church and P = 0 elsewhere. That metric obviously wouldn’t fall to the argument, so you are right that it can’t be just anything arbitrary.

  • Tom says:

    <>I'm skeptical that you can get to "GDP will be numerically maximized when economic rule-makers make moral rules" as a doctrine.<>Begging the question <>and<> shifting the burden of proof? Something about this subject is making you uncharacteristically sloppy.In any case: the LORD promises material prosperity to those who follow His precepts. For reasons good and bad, Catholics are uncomfortable with this and spiritualize these promises, but the promises are as they are nevertheless.If GDP is a measure of material prosperity, and if the LORD keeps His promises, then the GDP will increase in an economy in which the LORD’s precepts are kept.Will it be maximalized? I don’t know. I don’t think anyone knows. We don’t have much in the way of past performance to go by, and I doubt we have many validated economic models that account for God’s blessings.My point is that simply to assert that it won’t be maximalized is to beg the question.

  • Tom says:

    Oh, also, in terms of local maxima:There may be a quantitative utilitarian measure of material prosperity that you can get everyone to agree can be increased by eliminating one or more common-good constraints.But that measure would have to be one that somebody, somewhere is arguing ought to be maximized, regardless of anything else — including other measures of material prosperity.And my impression is that such an argument isn’t particularly rational whether or not we bring up the issue of moral constraints.

  • zippy says:

    <>My point is that simply to assert that it won't be maximalized is to beg the question.<>I did do a bit more than just assert, and the implication of my argument (whatever its merits) wasn’t that GDP won’t in fact be maximized by some divine miracle. The implication of my argument was that writing economic rules to maximize it will result in immoral rules, and that if we can point to its maximization as a result of those rules it probably means the rules are immoral.

  • brandon field says:

    <>I am saying that it is always possible for an economic system to be quantitatively more prosperous by unburdening its rule-making of more general concern for the common good: that the common good takes precedence over and trumps material prosperity;<>With this, I agree completely.<>I don't understand the invocation of intrinsic immorality.<>Some actions are always morally constrained for any circumstances, while some actions might be constrained only under certain circumstances. It is my belief (and Tom and Lydia seem to share this belief) that a global Pmax will not exist outside of the constraints of the intrinsically evil constraints. The circumstantial constraints are local, meaning that to get from one point to another in your prosperity space it might be moral, but to get there from a different point it might be immoral. (Note that I have been using actions to move about within the phase space; this might not be the construction that you intend).<>I don't think the common good supervenes over quantitative economic metrics, and what I had in mind was ordinary metrics of prosperity<>If I understand you correctly to be saying that the generally accepted economic metrics do not account for “common good”, I agree but only to a certain extent. I think that GDP of a country does have (at least a weak) correlation to the “subjective well being” (I learned that term in a psychology class) of the citizens of that country. Maybe it’s such a weak correlation that it is meaningless, but I believe that (1) a happy worker is a productive worker and (2) a productive worker is a happy worker.<>But you are right that it can't be purely arbitrary... That metric obviously wouldn't fall to the argument, so you are right that it can't be just anything arbitrary.<>I don’t only say that it can’t be arbitrary, I suspect that it is strongly dependent on the metric that you choose. Possibly strongly enough to make the rest of your assertions fall apart.In fact, I think that the metrics people use can always be chosen in such a way to result in whatever outcome you’d like, at the end. In engineering terms, drawing your control volume correctly is the most important part of any analysis.

  • brandon field says:

    Okay, I found the discussion over at WWwtW and I have a better understanding of what you’re trying to say. And I think even more that the specific metric of prosperity that you choose is critical, since that can be how the “common good” is accounted for, if even implicitly.

  • August says:

    You mixed the two models.<>Yes. The unconstrained system can adopt grammar in order to maximize material prosperity.<>What you would be saying here, if you hadn’t mixed my grammar model and your “maximizing” model together, would be that the morally unconstrained model would have to adopt morality in order to maximize material wealth.Ah, I like a good conversion story.

  • zippy says:

    <>You mixed the two models.<>No, I didn’t.<>...the morally unconstrained model would have to adopt morality in order to maximize material wealth.<>Not quite. The morally unconstrained system would adopt the same rules that the morally constrained system would adopt, <>when and only when doing so does not materially conflict with maximizing the utilitarian metric<>. In cases where maximizing the metric conflicts with the common good, maximizing the metric would win in the unconstrained system and lose in the constrained. So in aggregate the morally unconstrained system will be able to achieve a greater maximum on the metric: again, the unconstrained system can do everything materially that the constrained system can do, only more.The only way for [Pmax] to fall inside the morally constrained system is if it is <>never<> possible to increase the metric by adopting a morally bad (which can mean as little as “objectively imprudent as far as the common good is concerned”) rule.

  • Brandon Field says:

    Okay, after carefully re-reading your original post, in light of the parts of the discussion at WWwtW that I could understand (Maximos tends to use bigger words and longer sentence constructions than I can get my head around), I’ll agree wholeheartedly with your point <>if<>: (1) we restrict your quantitative measure to measures that don’t allow for any sort of “common good”, which is to say that average household income wealth across the entire population (which was the first generic measure that came to my mind when I originally read this post) is not allowed, and (2) instead of framing it in terms of Pmax being a global maximum, we talk about following increasing gradients of P, i.e. only considering local maximizations. (Okay, that first one was a long sentence too, but when I do it it’s more like an A.A. Milne sort of run on sentence, the sort that comes out of just typing how thoughts come to mind while you’re sitting in a comfy chair with dinner waiting on the stove for everyone else to get back from peewee soccer practice and a 1977 Dead show playing from the iPod in the kitchen; not the sort of long and dense sentence that you have to parse a couple of times that Maximos and Paul Cella tend to write).I think it’s fair to say that many standard metrics that people use for prosperity tend to be the sort that satisfy my requirement (1). I still think that GDP is somewhat a measure that could weakly account for the “common good”, but probably not by itself. Remember, I’ve only ever had one economics class, so I don’t generally know what economists are talking about.

  • zippy says:

    <>(1) we restrict your quantitative measure to measures that don't allow for any sort of "common good", which is to say that average household income wealth across the entire population (which was the first generic measure that came to my mind when I originally read this post) is not allowed, ...<>Well, you’ve convinced me (by talking me into constructing my own counterexample above) that the measure cannot be arbitrary, because if it is arbitrary I can make it up as something which will definitely never come into conflict with the common good, which is fairly easy to do (I can just set P=0 always and everywhere, for that matter, and hey presto the argument falls down). But I think probably all that is necessary is that it be possible in principle for the measure to conflict with the common good in the construction of some (any) proposed economic rule; and it seems to me that any real measure of actual aggregated wealth can in principle, in how it comes about, conflict with the common good.<>...and (2) instead of framing it in terms of Pmax being a global maximum, we talk about following increasing gradients of P, i.e. only considering local maximizations.<>It doesn’t have to be increasing gradients though: it might involve accepting a temporary poverty for the sake of longer term material wealth, for example, and whether that meets the criteria depends on the measure of prosperity chosen. It isn’t that this has to be <>local<> in quite the sense you are saying, I don’t think. It just has to be <>accessible through rule-changes and economic behaviors from where we actually are<>. Any truly disconnected phase space which literally cannot be reached from here through rule changes and economic behaviors is not part of the phase space under analysis, as it were. But given that definition of the phase space under consideration (that is, the space of all possible future states arising from the application of the entire permutation space of all possible rules to our present circumstances) it isn’t really restricted to locality. Physical inaccessibility might form a kind of schwartzchild radius around it definitionally, but I am not sure we are yet in agreement on the sense of “local” that implies.Don’t get me wrong, I think you’ve shed light on two particular aspects of the theory that need further clarification. I’m just not clear that we agree on those in the particulars, as yet.

  • brandon field says:

    <>it might involve accepting a temporary poverty for the sake of longer term material wealth<>Okay, I see what you’ve been getting at. I’d call this a quasi-global maximization, because it still can only really deal with the neighborhood (albeit an extended neighborhood) of your original phase space. (I suppose the better business men can see wider neighborhoods).I still think that given that immorality is not always absolute (as in my worker wage example above), the constraints are not necessarily going to form closed regions. But, if your phase space is quasi-global, then maybe the space you are investigating is particular to the particular country/corporation under consideration?

  • c matt says:

    Well, doesn’t it seem to be the case that societies/economies that have abortion and contraception widely available and practiced are more materially prosperous, to give one example of such a rule?Of course it is becoming difficult in this day and age to find a good “control” group economy that does not practice these things.Is part of the problem a temporal one? That is, its seems that the [Pmax] may do better than the [Pmax-good] for a given period of time (even what many might consider a long period), but is the [Pmax] indefinitely sustainable, or will natural laws eventually cause [Pmax] to either constrain itself to [Pmax-good] or collapse?

  • zippy says:

    <>Is part of the problem a temporal one?<>Yeah, I think this may be part of where Brandon’s and my understandings of locality are coming into conflict. I am thinking of an economy in the same way I would think of an actual (say) polypeptide chain in physiological conditions, and he is thinking about it as a pure mathematical object. When we understand the former even in terms of a mathematical idealization we are dealing with a more circumscribed (by the physical facts) space of possibilities; a circumscription which strikes the mathematician as arbitrary and the physicist as rational. The old joke is that the physicist asks the mathematician if he has the problem solved, and the mathematician replies, disappointed, that yes he does but only for the trivial case of positive real values. To some extent I may be doing economic physics here while Brandon is doing pure mathematics. But we’ll see what else he has to say; he’s been very helpful in whittling away at my understanding so far.

  • zippy says:

    Actually I read c matt’s comment and didn’t see Brandon’s latest!Brandon:<>But, if your phase space is quasi-global, then maybe the space you are investigating is particular to the particular country/corporation under consideration?<>Yes it is. It applies to analyzing actual systems, not the space of all conceivable systems. I am doing economic physics, not pure mathematics, if you will, so some of the constraints are (loosely speaking) <>physical<>; but physical constraints aren’t <>arbitrary<>, they just aren’t entailed by the mathematics directly: they are entailed by the object which is being analyzed mathematically: in this case actual realizable economic systems.

  • Zippy- I’m in agreement with you on this. Sounds like you’re more or less restating Matthew 6:24. We (individually and collectively) need to keep our priorities straight.

  • e. says:

    Sleeping Beastly remarked:“Zippy- I'm in agreement with you on this. Sounds like you're more or less restating Matthew 6:24. We (individually and collectively) need to keep our priorities straight.”I thought we should in a show of ecumenism advocate our Protestant Brothers & Sisters who “keep the [Catholic] Church honest” by preaching the important Gospel as this:< HREF="http://www.entrepreneur.com/growyourbusiness/portfoliocombusinessnewsandopinion/article196396.html" REL="nofollow">God Wants Me to Be Rich<>Excerpt:Joel Osteen preaches the virtues of prosperity—for himself as well as his congregation. A look at the man who may well be one of the biggest beneficiaries of the slumping economy. Was it not Sleeping Beastly who implied at another blog and at another time by such sentiments that it should be the Catholic Church who should be following after Protestantism rather than the latter since, after all, Protestantism should serve as the standard?Although the Catholic Church herself has consistently said time and again the importance of storing up your treasures in Heaven.< HREF="http://www.usccb.org/sdwp/ejp/background/articles/consumption.shtml" REL="nofollow">The Good Life from a Catholic Perspective: The Problem of Consumption<>In Matthew 6:19-21, Jesus said to his disciples:“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.But store up treasures in heaven,where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”I am glad that cmatt and Zippy continues to preach the authentic Gospel of the Church in a manner acknowledging the significance of this Gospel message the Catholic Church has taught even in its early days.

  • Why, e.,Are you the same John Smith of Jimmy’s blog? Wondering where I implied that Protestantism should serve as the standard for anything? <>Is<> there even such a thing as Protestant standard of anything?I don’t know that I have a beef with Prosperity Gospel in principle, although I do think that letting your avarice lead you to good works still involves avarice.I will repeat my assertion on Tim’s blog that when Israel turns from God, God frequently puts her back on the right track by hitting her in a place she’s prepared to feel it- that is, materially.

  • e. says:

    Sleeping Beastly,In case you haven’t read the Bible, here is one of the things Jesus preached:“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth,where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal.But store up treasures in heaven,where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.For where your treasure is, there also will your heart be.”Matthew 6:19-21

  • […] constraints on behavior, someone unconstrained by morality can, in the short term at least, achieve greater material prosperity than someone who is constrained by […]

  • […] made this point before, but it bears repeating since the same mistake keeps popping up […]

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