Moral Questions vs. Computations

by Reihan Salam

Mark Kleiman describes a recent exchange with Jonathan Rauch, and in doing so sheds light on how different people approach public policy questions. Kleiman has observed that while roughly 80 percent of the users of any given drug use it responsibly and without causing harm to others, the remaining 20 percent are a different story — they consume 80 percent or more of the drug and they account for an even higher proportion of the harm that results from its abuse. For Kleiman, the existence of this 20 percent necessitates regulation of drug use, as sellers of the drug in question will profit from the problem use of the 20 percent while the public has an interest in containing the damage it causes, to bystanders and to the problem users themselves. But, Rauch asks, is this fair to the 80 percent of responsible users? Are we sacrificing their interests at the expense of those of the problem users?

If you think of problem users and non-problem users as different people, it’s natural to ask which group’s interests ought to make way for the other’s. That seems to be a moral or constitutional question. But if you think of yourself as a potential user of a drug (or, as Jonathan suggested to me, the parent of a potential user), unable to know in advance whether your (or your child’s) use will remain controlled or will instead progress to dependency, and ask how much inconvenience in controlled use you want to sacrifice for protection against a bad habit, then you confront a practical problem rather than a moral one.

The same framework can apply to other policy questions: 

Asking “How much do the non-poor owe to the poor?” is a moral question. Asking “How much protection would a reasonable person want against the risk of poverty?” sounds more like a computation. Of course, if you think of yourself as naturally immune to the risks of drug abuse or of poverty, you’ll be more inclined to let the drug abusers, and the poor, go hang.

Kleiman’s framework raises a number of interesting questions, and it reminds me of our recent discussion of Brink Lindsey’s thoughts on IQ. The risk of poverty is likely to vary across individuals. One of the main arguments for favoring skilled immigrants over less-skilled immigrants is that the risk of poverty is likely to be much higher among non-college-educated adults with limited English proficiency than among college-educated adults with a high degree of English language proficiency. And so immigration policy raises both moral questions — do we have the same kind of moral obligations to foreigners as we do to fellow citizens? — as well as practical questions. When I consider that I may well have been born as a non-American, I might be more sympathetic to a more generous immigration policy, as I’d want to increase the likelihood that I’d be able to access the U.S. labor market even if I had been born elsewhere. Or perhaps I’d conclude that because non-Americans benefit indirectly from the existence of a certain kind of American polity, a more restrictive immigration policy is compatible with a veil-of-ignorance perspective. 

One last thought on the veil-of-ignorance perspective and protection against the risk of poverty. I often discuss the importance of crime control, as the fact that we aren’t close to achieving the “equal protection of the law” is a powerful driver of unequal social outcomes. The University of Arizona sociologist Lane Kenworthy, in contrast, often emphasizes the importance of early childhood education. It’s a safe bet that Kenworthy believes that we ought to move aggressively on both fronts. Yet if we assume limited resources, it is easy to imagine that at least some reasonable people would choose a stronger guarantee of physical security over lower-cost access to pre-K instruction. On the other hand, I tend to think that a veil-of-ignorance perspective would tend to incline people towards spending more on wage subsidies and work supports than we do at present.