Are ethical asymmetries from property rights?

These are some intuitions people often have:

  • You are not required to save a random person, but you are definitely not allowed to kill one
  • You are not required to create a person, but you are definitely not allowed to kill one
  • You are not required to create a happy person, but you are definitely not allowed to create a miserable one
  • You are not required to help a random person who will be in a dire situation otherwise, but you are definitely not allowed to put someone in a dire situation
  • You are not required to save a person in front of a runaway train, but you are definitely not allowed to push someone in front of a train. By extension, you are not required to save five people in front of a runaway train, and if you have to push someone in front of the train to do it, then you are not allowed.

Here are some more:

  • You are not strongly required to give me your bread, but you are not allowed to take mine
  • You are not strongly required to lend me your car, but you are not allowed to unilaterally borrow mine
  • You are not strongly required to send me money, but you are not allowed to take mine

The former are ethical intuitions. The latter are implications of a basic system of property rights. Yet they seem very similar. The ethical intuitions seem to just be property rights as applied to lives and welfare. Your life is your property. I’m not allowed to take it, but I’m not obliged to give it to you if you don’t by default have it. Your welfare is your property. I’m not allowed to lessen what you have, but I don’t have to give you more of it.

[Edited to add: A basic system of property rights means assigning each thing to a person, who is then allowed to decide what happens to that thing. This gives rise to asymmetry because taking another person’s things is not allowed (since they are in charge of them, not you), but giving them more things is neutral (since you are in charge of your things and can do what you like with them).]

My guess is that these ethical asymmetries—which are confusing, because they defy consequentialism—are part of the mental equipment we have for upholding property rights.

In particular these well-known asymmetries seem to be explained well by property rights:

  • The act-omission distinction naturally arises where an act would involve taking someone else’s property (broadly construed—e.g. their life, their welfare), while an omission would merely fail to give them additional property (e.g. life that they are not by default going to have, additional welfare).
  • ‘The asymmetry’ between creating happy and miserable people is because to create a miserable person is to give that person something negative, which is to take away what they have, while creating a happy person is giving that person something extra.
  • Person-affecting views arise because birth gives someone a thing they don’t have, whereas death takes a thing from them.

Further evidence that these intuitive asymmetries are based on upholding property rights: we also have moral-feeling intuitions about more straightforward property rights. Stealing is wrong.

If I am right that we have these asymmetrical ethical intuitions as part of a scheme to uphold property rights, what would that imply?

It might imply something about when we want to uphold them, or consider them part of ethics, beyond their instrumental value. Property rights at least appear to be a system for people with diverse goals to coordinate use of scarce resources—which is to say, to somehow use the resources with low levels of conflict and destruction. They do not appear to be a system for people to achieve specific goals, e.g. whatever is actually good. Unless what is good is exactly the smooth sharing of resources.

I’m not actually sure what to make of that—should we write off some moral intuitions as clearly evolved for not-actually-moral reasons and just reason about the consequentialist value of upholding property rights? If we have the moral intuition, does that make the thing of moral value, regardless of its origins? Is pragmatic rules for social cohesion all that ethics is anyway? Questions for another time perhaps (when we are sorting out meta-ethics anyway).

A more straightforward implication is for how we try to explain these ethical asymmetries. If we have an intuition about an asymmetry which stems from upholding property rights, it would seem to be a mistake to treat it as evidence about an asymmetry in consequences, e.g. in value accruing to a person. For instance, perhaps I feel that I am not obliged to create a life, by having a child. Then—if I suppose that my intuitions are about producing goodness—I might think that creating a life is of neutral value, or is of no value to the created child. When in fact the intuition exists because allocating things to owners is a useful way to avoid social conflict. That intuition is part of a structure that is known to be agnostic about benefits to people from me giving them my stuff. If I’m right that these intuitions come from upholding property rights, this seems like an error that is actually happening.

21 responses to “Are ethical asymmetries from property rights?

  1. There’s an unfinished sentence: “Unless what is good is exactly the smooth sharing of resources. So these ‘moral’ intuitions”

  2. Social rules aside, many of these asymmetries might come from empathy. I experience loss aversion in my own life, and thus recognise that your perceived loss of a thing will be greater than the gain when first acquiring it.

    It may be that loss aversion itself develops only under property rights. But humans tend to experience baseline happiness regardless of wealth. Is the amount of maximum negative deviation from the baseline greater than maximum positive deviation? I intuit they’re of similar value, but this could otherwise be an explanation for asymmetries.

  3. michealvassar

    It seems weird and unnecessary for property intuitions to be agnostic about the possibility of helping people by giving them things. Capitalists like Christmas shopping, right?

    • As I read it, Katja is saying that a conflict arises between property intuitions and consequentialism, to wit: property intuitions say that we are not obliged to give away our property even when the recipient would probably derive greater utility from it than we would. It seems like the issue is that consequentialism makes no distinction between the obligatory and the supererogatory. In the final paragraph, she speculates that one might try to resolve this conflict by denying that acts considered supererogatory (according to property intuitions) can be better than neutral, but concludes that that would be a mistake.

  4. I just want to say that this is the most illuminating blog post I’ve read in at least a year. Your hypothesis here sound really quite plausible.

    Thank you for writing this.

  5. Daniel Kokotajlo

    Very interesting! Thank you!

    Your model seems to be: Dividing resources without waste and conflict –> property rights –> act/omission distinction –> asymmetric moral intuitions. Hence “our asymmetric moral intuitions are part of the mental equipment we have for upholding property rights.”

    What about this alternative model: Avoiding waste and conflict –> act/omission distinction –> ( asymmetric moral intuitions & property rights )
    The corresponding slogan of this model would be “the act/omission distinction is part of the mental equipment we have for living together peaceably with people who have different goals/values/beliefs than we do; this distinction is useful for property rights and also for various common moral situations.”

    Points in favor of the second model:
    (0) The first model involves stretching the definition of your property. It’s not a ridiculously unnatural stretch to think of your life as your property, but it is a bit weird. So the second model might generate slogans less likely to mislead.
    (1) If we can’t spell out what property rights are and how they work without using the act/omission distinction, then arguably the act/omission distinction is more fundamental and property rights and moral asymmetries come from it rather than the other way around. And indeed it seems to me that the notion of a “default outcome” is doing tons of the real heavy lifting in all of these examples–the common thread is a rule like “You only get to seriously complain about what someone else does if it gives you less utility than the default outcome would.”
    (2) I suspect that our asymmetric moral intuitions aren’t just spandrels of our property rights intuitions. I’d bet that they directly serve a helping-us-all-get-along purpose, rather than merely indirectly via property rights. If we lived in a communist society with no property rights I’d bet that they would still be useful, for example. Or if we were different kinds of beings, with goal functions but no need for resources or objects, I’d bet that they would still be useful. (Relatedly, I’d bet that we *can* spell out the act/omission distinction without reference to property, but not vice versa.)

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  7. The root problem here is that the category “moral” lumps together (a) intuitions about what’s intrinsically valuable, (b) intuitions about what the correct coordination protocols are, and (c) intuitions about what’s healthy for a human. Kantian morality, like the property intuitions you’ve identified, is about (b) (“don’t lie” doesn’t fail gracefully in a mixed world, but makes sense and is coherent as a proposed operating protocol), while Rawlsian morality and the sort of utilitarian calculus people are trying to derive from weird thought experiments about trolleys is about (a) (questions about things like distribution *presuppose* that we already have decent operating protocols to enable a shared deliberative mechanism, rather than a state of constant epistemic war).

  8. Do we know the standard ethical systems of societies without the explicit/state-enforced property rights of modern Western societies, like hunter-gatherer tribes?

  9. Richard Kennaway

    >My guess is that these ethical asymmetries—which are confusing, because they defy consequentialism

    Ponens or tollens? A standard criticism of consequentialism is that it defies these asymmetries.

    I recently heard the issue put to Peter Singer, that his ethics appear to require caring not a fraction more about your own children than about any other child in the world, and I did not hear a straight answer. He just said that that would be another valid way of acting. The programme is downloadable from

  10. Gnostic Gnome

    Most likely the asymmetries in property rights and other human rights come from Schelling Points – bright line norms that contribute to functioning society and/or human flourishing. It is almost impossible to have a concept that I must save every person in trouble (though one drowning right in front of me is a different story and we probably do have some ethical obligation there) because there are billions of people and who could live up to such a rule. As an ethical principle it doesn’t work. But “don’t murder” is easy to follow and easy to shame those who don’t follow it. Put a line in the sand there and any who cross it are lost/dangers to others/a threat to be countered. Most of morality comes from such rights/such Schelling Points, and property rights do too. Of course the lines can be drawn brightly in a different place than they are, but it’s tricky to move them once they’re set up because if we don’t treat them as fixed, we don’t know how far they’ll be moved.

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  13. For what it’s worth, I consciously use property rights to *decide* my default answer to these trolley problem things. Shoving the one guy in front of a train to save five others: I’d consider it “possibly admirable” and possibly the right choice, but definitely a violation of his rights, and would support a legal system that would punish the shover like any other murderer. (I’d also consider it admirable if the guy’s heirs decided not to prosecute, and if the five survivors voluntarily gave some compensation to the heirs. But failing to be admirable is not immoral.)

    Meanwhile, in an analogous situation where the decision is made by a train operator who can pull a switch to divert the train from five people to one, the murder or tantamount-to-murder is committed by whoever tied the people to the tracks, and the train operator bears no moral responsibility no matter what he chooses. In that case, probably his professional training should say he should make the choice that saves the most people (though if there seems a risk of derailing the train and endangering the passengers, that could dominate), and if he makes the professionally “wrong” choice, he might be fired for being bad at his job, but not prosecuted. Property rights dictate the legally permissible actions, and the property rights are different in the two situations.

    Note that, in the first case, the “saving five people is legally right” proposition implies that you might legally get killed by happening to stand within shoving distance of the tracks in certain situations where someone decides that sacrificing your body is worth the benefits (and, possibly, can persuade a jury of the same opinion). In the second case, the “saving five people is legally right” proposition merely implies that you might get killed if *either* someone illegally kidnaps you and ties you to the train tracks, or if you through some freak accident trip and fall and land, paralyzed, on the train tracks and no one can pull you away. I think it is appropriate for a legal system, being implemented by fallible mortals, to declare it will not support the first proposition, while the second is merely an acknowledgment of reality (the legal system is already doing what it can to prevent the murderous kidnappers, while the “freak accident” is something everyone tries to avoid and occasionally happens anyway).

    The end of the post says “If I’m right that these intuitions come from upholding property rights, this seems like an error”. What is the error? I stand by the above defense of the property-rights resolution of the trolley problems. Are you, say, referring to something more like a general cognitive bias towards undervaluing charitable actions?

  14. @Katja

    These ethical asymmetries only seem to defy consequentialism because you fail to appreciate the second order effects. We can temporarily maximize well-being by equalizing all wealth, but then very quickly we’ll see that people become much less willing to accept a personal cost to produce stuff, when it will just get taken from them (as they then bear the personal cost, but not the personal benefit).

    To me, one of the most important elements of a just society is to create an incentive system that rewards prosocial behavior. Capitalism is at the core highly prosocial in pushing people to use their skills for the benefit of others (although if this goes too far, it becomes abusive).

    You seem to argue that humans are flawed for being this selfish, rather than to be purely altruistic. However, just like too much capitalism is abusive, too much altruism opens one up to be abused by bad actors.

    Fundamentally, we are animals, not Gods. Animals and nature in general are at the core selfish and prosocial behavior arises because it is a good strategy to achieve selfish goals. Ironically, I think that for humans, a delusion that we are more altruistic than we actually are is a successful strategy that made us the dominant species. It allows us to create a social norm of cooperation while not shying away from punishing behavior that threatens society.

  15. I find that when thinking about ethical asymetries, a helpful tool is to “naturalize” them. Instead of imagining whether you or someone else is doing the action that leads to the consequences, imagine the action occurs naturally and is no one’s fault.

    For example, in the “Fat Man” variant of the Trolley Problem, imagine that instead of being pushed, the Fat Man just naturally stumbles and falls into the path of the trolley. Instead of giving someone else your bread, imagine that someone else finds some bread and that your bread has coincidentally molded over. Instead of you choosing to bring a child into the world, imagine there is some kind of tree that children grow from like fruit.

    After using this tool, some of my moral judgements change. The fat man falling into the path of the trolley doesn’t seem any different than throwing the switch, so my aversion to push the fat man is probably caused by some rule-utilitarian aversion to murder/property-violation rather than a consequentialist moral principle.

    Some of my other moral judgements don’t change, however. For the Thousand Sadists Problem, if I imagine that, instead of being tortured, the person the Sadists see suffer just happens to suffer from an agonizing illness, their suffering still seems like a bad consequence, even though it delights the sadists. And whether it’s good that a new happy person comes into existence still to me to depend on a lot more variables than just whether or not that person is happy. (This makes sense, Parfit’s original version of the Repugnant Conclusion posited the new people coming into existence naturally, rather than having them be created by the other population, so it makes sense that that repugnance has nothing to do with rule-utilitarian property rights intuitions).

  16. Katja Grace’s point on ethical asymmetries implies a lot more about the difficulty of AI Alignment and Bayesian reasoning than is immediately obvious. The difference between an AI utility function that doesn’t have to include ethical asymmetries and one that does is precisely the mathematical difference between the complexity of a simple linear regression and a deep neural net. Deep Neural Nets have to use asymmetric activations in order to encode arbitrary amounts of complexity. You can plot out KG’s ethical asymmetry as an upside-down RELU activation function.

    Consequently, ethical AI systems that have to include asymmetries like those implied by property rights in their utility calculations should be expected to be just as hard to train, and just as imperfect and susceptible to adversarial manipulation, as Deep Neural Nets are today. This probably implies that ethical AGI will have to be trained using supervised learning – i.e. by lots of examples rather than encoded principles – because this is the only semi-reliable way we know to fit a utility function in high-dimensional spaces like real-world ethics.

    Of course, Stochastic Gradient Descent is probably the logical way to approach this sort of ethics training in AI systems today, but it’s interesting to think about how the brain has evolved to do the same thing using Spike Timing Dependent Plasticity. It’s not hard to imagine that deontological norms might have derived over time from this process.

    (Cross-posted from slatestarcodex, where I just saw your article linked today)

  17. “My guess is that these ethical asymmetries—which are confusing, because they defy consequentialism—are part of the mental equipment we have for upholding property rights.”

    Why are ethical intuitions that defy consequentialism confusing? And maybe they just have similarities, because like property or other rights, they help to insure stable expectations of behavior under conditions of uncertainty, whereas consequentialist calculations in the real world involves significant uncertainty.

  18. christhenottopher

    This seems empirically testable actually!

    The concept of the importance of private property is particularly well developed in some cultures and professions (particularly developed nations and people closely tied to market exchange for their livelihoods). So do groups that are less involved in market exchanges have less distinction between omission and commission? Are Kurds on communes in Rojava more likely to say there is a duty to save life as well as to not take it than Kurds working for a large corporation in Istanbul? Though OK that particular example is admittedly pretty tough to get results from given the still very dangerous conditions in Syria, maybe a better option is Mayans in Zapatista territory vs other Mayans in Chiapas.

    The possibility seems interesting, but probably needs to be tested. However if true, this does provide evidence that one’s economic system leads to one’s moral intuitions.

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  20. *” You are not required to create a happy person, but you are definitely not allowed to create a miserable one”
    This could use some caveats. If I invent a new gizmo that makes many people happy but kills the market for various competing products, the former producers of those products may be miserable as a result of my action, but only a few people would suggest that new inventions should be prohibited. Similarly, a person with an unusual psychology may react with misery to nearly any imaginable stimulus. If I have a crush on someone and it makes me miserable that they refuse to date me or that they change their hair style, this is entirely my problem and puts no obligation on them. Perhaps there are stimuli that could only and always make the recipient miserable (candidates found in a certain sub-genre of horror movies) no matter hold zen-like their equanimity, but I suspect that in all those cases it is not the misery that best abstracts their similarity, but something to do with bodily integrity and physical pain. Even in the case of pain, a doctor can ethically cause some, given consent, and indeed may be ethically obligated to cause pain in a specific case.

    “* You are not required to help a random person who will be in a dire situation otherwise, but you are definitely not allowed to put someone in a dire situation”
    Again, this has exceptions. If the person has given consent to whatever is happening and the direness was a known risk of the plan, the situation is at least less clear than this implies. Perhaps I could quibble that consent would change all your intuitions. A charitable reading of your article suggests that it was implied in each case that the subject did not consent before that various actions were taken. But that could get complicated too, since even giving someone a gift without warning is not in all cases ethical.

    “The ethical intuitions seem to just be property rights as applied to lives and welfare. Your life is your property.”
    Libertarians often make a similar point, though I would state it as there is an isomorphism between property and ethics. Any ethical principle can be expressed as a property right, and (more easily) vice versa. And they would usually state it as you own your body, which has the slight advantage of being a physical object. Maybe they mean the same thing. You can’t take my life while doing nothing to my body.

    “. Your welfare is your property. “
    If so, we are back to prohibiting innovations. Any action I take or fail to take will impact other persons’ welfare to some extent. If I am not allowed to reduce someone else’s welfare, I can’t act. But I also can’t remain inactive, since that may lower someone’s welfare (especially mine). For me to own my welfare requires that everyone else refrain from disturbing It without my permission, which seems impractical.

    “these ethical asymmetries—which are confusing, because they defy consequentialism—“
    I am curious to hear you say more about this. Do you think it could ever be ethical for asymmetries to arise by consent? E.g. that ethics might allow persons to take on different roles that gave them different rights and obligations, perhaps allowing them to choose? Something like adults vs. children, or maybe police officer vs. ordinary person. People who support gun control almost always seem to envision police officers continuing to carry firearms differently than ordinary persons.
    “The act-omission distinction “
    Another reason for this distinction is that I am capable of only taking so many acts, while I may omit an infinite number. Maybe it relates to the difference between positive rights and negative rights. I can respect the property of and refrain from killing an infinite number of persons. I can only provide free tuition for so many.

    “They [property rights] do not appear to be a system for people to achieve specific goals, e.g. whatever is actually good. Unless what is good is exactly the smooth sharing of resources.”
    Smooth use of resources is at least helpful and probably necessary to accomplishing any goal, at least if it involves people using resources to accomplish it and humanity not starving while accomplishing it. If the team pursuing the goal uses a single complete plan, then whoever the authors of the plan are count as the owners of the resources used. If it is more distributed and emergent, and involves continuing to feed, house and educate the human race at the same time, then a more distributed pattern of ownership will be needed.
    “—should we write off some moral intuitions as clearly evolved for not-actually-moral reasons “
    Hmmm.. Did any of our moral intuitions evolve for moral reasons? I’m not sure what you mean.
    “The consequentialist value of upholding property rights?”
    We can choose different forms of property rights to uphold, but can we do away with them altogether? We could call it by a different name, but in every society I can imagine, persons can become confused about who gets to decide how something will be used, and this conflict must somehow get resolved. The person who decides how it will be used may not be called the owner, but that is the social function they fulfill.
    “. If we have an intuition about an asymmetry which stems from upholding property rights, it would seem to be a mistake to treat it as evidence about an asymmetry in consequences, e.g. in value accruing to a person. “
    I don’t understand this statement.

    “ is part of a structure that is known to be agnostic about benefits to people from me giving them my stuff. “
    I might not be on the right track. Are you saying that having gifts be voluntary implies that they are not a benefit? I guess that in some cases gifts are not benefits, whether required of the giver or not. But just becausse w are not compelled to give doesn’t imply that giving has no value.

    Maybe we are mixing the language of deontology and consequentialism. Deontology prohibits, requires or remains neutral. Consequentialism always imagines a value, one thing better or worse than the other. But rule utilitarianism might be a realistic compromise. Pure consequentialism is incomputable. Ordinary persons can follow rules when they can’t calculate utilities.


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