Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Law, Morality, and Medicine

Morality exists as an institution for promoting socially useful behavior and inhibiting socially harmful behavior.

Law and medicine (specifically, mental health) have the same end, at least in part.

How do they differ?


Law works on an agent's existing desires and aversions in order to provide an incentive to perform socially useful behavior, or a disincentive to perform socially harmful behavior.

Well, ideally, this is what it is supposed to do.

The easiest way for the law to do this is to focus on welfare goods. Welfare goods are goods that are useful regardless of what a person desires. Cash is useful - regardless of what an agent desires - because it provides a means towards realizing those desires. Thus, giving cash provides a generally effective incentive, and taking cash (fines) provides a generally effective disincentive.

Liberty - a freedom to go places and to talk to people - is generally useful for fulfilling a number of desires. Consequently, imprisonment is a disincentive to performing socially harmful actions.

A problem with the law that is particularly relevant to socially harmful actions is that it depends on getting caught. A person who can benefit from a socially harmful action without getting caught can ignore the law's disincentives.


Morality, by contrast, does not take desires as they are. Morality works on changing desires - strengthening desires that tend to cause socially useful behavior and aversions that would block socially harmful behavior.

One of the advantages of morality over law is that morality works even when agents will not get caught.

You have to watch children who like cookies, because they may try to sneak a cookie whenever the parents are not watching. However, you don't have to worry that the child who hates broccoli is going to sneak into the refrigerator and walk off with the broccoli even when she would not get caught.

Similarly, if you give people an aversion to taking property without consent, then you can risk having your property in a place where others can walk off with it without being caught, and your property will be safe. Others will not take it simply because they are averse to taking it.

To the degree to which one is surrounded by people who are averse to taking one's property without consent, one's property is safer. To the degree that one is surrounded by people averse to killing, one's life is more secure. To the degree one is surrounded by people who like to help those in need, one can obtain help if one is in need. For these reasons, people generally have reasons to promote these aversions stealing and killing and promoting desires to help others.


The mental health industry is also at least partially responsible for altering desires to promote socially useful behavior and to prevent socially harmful behavior - particularly the latter.

Yet, we distinguish between morality and medicine.

The distinction can be found in the fact that morality uses reward and punishment (like law) to change desires. Praise, in this context, works as a type of reward, while condemnation works as a type of punishment. Consequently, morality also uses praise and condemnation.

Medicine, on the other hand, uses such things as surgery, drugs, and blame-free talk therapy to accomplish these same ends.

Now, in the medical field - particularly with talk therapy - praise and condemnation is often used. However, this simply means that the practitioner is mixing a bit of morality in with their medicine - using reward and punishment to promote those desires and aversions that will keep people in treatment and taking their meds.

Similarly, in the medical field, practitioners will establish rules with incentives to follow the rules and punishments for violating them. However, this simply implies that the medical practitioner is combining aspects of law with aspects of medicine.

Nothing requires that only one of these tools can be used at a time.

However, they are three distinct tools each with their own distinct components.


Now, we can talk about eliminating morality because morality does not exist. However, that would be like talking about getting rid of law because law does not exist, or getting rid of medicine because health does not exist.

The fact is, these things do exist. Furthermore, our moral institutions - like our legal institutions and health care institutions - are vital to our quality of life. They are all worth keeping around, and improving where there is room for improvement.

No comments: