Archives for morality



A Tax Taxonomy

Dan Hamermesh’s much-discussed post about taxing capital gains brought to mind my own taxonomy of taxes, so to speak, from least to most progressive:

1. Poll tax. Everyone pays the same amount. What could be fairer than this?!
England tried it in the late 14th century, leading in 1381 to Wat Tyler‘s Rebellion. Six hundred years later, England tried it again, leading to the Poll Tax Riots.

2. Sales tax. Goods are taxed at a flat rate (often 17 to 20 percent in Europe, and 5 to 8 percent in various American jurisdictions). Because the wealthy spend a smaller fraction of their income on taxable goods than do the poor, this tax is less progressive than a flat income tax.

3. Flat income tax. Everyone pays the same fraction of his or her income. This tax was the core of Steve Forbes’s platform when he ran for president in 1996 and 2000. Read More »



Obedience on the Job

On America’s first subway, Boston’s Green line, the middle doors stopped opening. When I asked the driver to open the doors, he said that he couldn’t: now all boarding and deboarding at the above-ground stops is through the narrow front door by the fare box. Ah, the MBTA: making up for the 23 percent fare hikes on July 1 with improved service!

Me: “The new policy slows the ride for everyone. Now passengers cannot board and pay their fares until all the deboarding passengers have left.”

Driver, shrugging: “It’s the new policy. I just do what my boss tells me to do. I don’t question.”

Me: “We could use some questioning.”

Driver: “Questioning isn’t part of my job. I just wait for my pay day.” Read More »



Jonathan Haidt Answers Your Questions About Morality, Politics, and Religion

We recently solicited your questions for social psychologist Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion

Below are his responses about confirmation bias in religion, the “score” of our morals, the power of branding, how his research has made him a centrist, and how the search for truth is hampered by our own biases. Big thanks to him and all our readers for another great Q&A.   Read More »



Why Can’t We All Just Get Along? Bring Your Questions for Righteous Mind Author Jonathan Haidt

“Morality, by its very nature, makes it hard to study morality,” writes the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. “It binds people together into teams that seek victory, not truth. It closes hearts and minds to opponents even as it makes cooperation and decency possible within groups.”

His new book is called The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion and it is absorbing on so many levels. (It addresses some of the same ideas in a Freakonomics Radio episode called “The Truth Is Out There … Isn’t It?”) Here’s a Times review; here’s one from the Guardian.

I’m pleased to say that Haidt has agreed to take questions on his topic from Freakonomics readers, so ask away in the comments section and as always, we’ll post his answers in short order. Read More »



Channeling FDR: The Moral Case Against Unemployment

My last weekend in D.C. provided a final chance to enjoy my favorite haunts. And so I found myself walking amongst the memorialized giants of U.S. history: Washington, Lincoln, and now, Martin Luther King. On I walked, through the FDR Memorial, where I stumbled across the chiseled message below. Sure, I had seen it before. But I had forgotten how beautiful it is. And with the President about to announce his new jobs package, and Congress set to (hopefully!) debate these measures, it seems well worth sharing my serendipitous moment with Franklin Delano Roosevelt. A reminder, if you like, of why we care. Read More »



The Virtues of Free Markets?

In our books, Dubner and I have argued that economic analysis (at least the way we try to do it) is neither moral nor immoral. We try to start with a question, obtain a set of facts, and then understand where those facts lead, trying not to be prejudiced one way or the other by moral considerations when coming to a conclusion.

Similarly, I’ve never really thought of markets as being moral or immoral.

Mark Zupan, the dean of the University of Rochester’s William E. Simon School of Business, thinks differently. In a recent piece, Zupan makes an argument that most people will find counterintuitive: he claims that free markets foster integrity and cooperation. I’m not sure I fully agree with him, but the basic idea is sensible and straightforward. Markets lead to firms that survive for long periods of time. Reputations are important to firms, which leads them to behave in virtuous ways, not because they’re inherently moral, but because virtue is good for business in the long run.



Why Do We Fail to Do What’s Right? Authors of Blind Spots Answer Your Questions

Earlier this month, we published a guest post on the ethics of the decision-making that led to the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. That post was adapted from a new book called Blind Spots: Why We Fail to Do What’s Right and What to Do about It. The authors are Max Bazerman, a professor at Harvard Business School, and Ann Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at Notre Dame.

We then solicited your questions for Brazerman and Tenbrunsel, who now return with their answers. Read More »



Taking Lab Rats Seriously: The Case Against (Most) Animal Testing

Billions upon billions of animals are used every year for the purposes of scientific experimentation. It’s actually hard to think of another practice that’s as commonplace as it is controversial (biotechnology, perhaps?). It goes without saying that many of these experiments are a waste of time and resources. The NIH, for example, recently spent about $4 million exploring how the menstrual cycles of monkeys were influenced by cocaine, meth, and heroin. Other animal-based experiments, however, appear to have genuine utilitarian value, contributing useful information to our knowledge of Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s, and several cancers. Delve into this issue and you’ll find that only one thing is certain: clear answers aren’t forthcoming.

I generally believe that animal experimentation is a morally flawed way to accumulate scientific knowledge. That said, I plead agnosticism when it comes to rare cases of direct benefit to human life. I’m sure that if one of my children were afflicted with a life threatening disease and experimentation on monkeys had a plausible chance of finding a cure, I’d reluctantly support that research. As much as I’d like to be consistent on this issue–as I’m able to be with, say, my diet–I’m afraid I must take convenient refuge in Emerson’s saying about foolish consistency and little minds. As I said, nothing about the morality of animal experimentation is easy. Read More »