In a standard introduction to ethical reasoning, the focus is on the varying value frameworks of different normative theories. Utilitarians focus on social utility. Kantians, with their emphasis on treating individuals as “ends in themselves” focus more on individual rights or autonomy. From this foundation in conflicting value frameworks, it is often extrapolated that moral conflicts come down to value conflicts. And sometimes they do. Indeed, it is not rare that social utility might conflict with the individualist focus on rights or autonomy.
Nonetheless, very often conflicts about concrete issues of ethics depend not on value conflicts but on conflicting understandings of the facts. The standard debate of the Republicans versus the Democrats on minimum wage offers us one example. While many of the Democratic contenders for the 2020 election advocate a $15.00 minimum wage, neither Donald Trump nor other leading Republicans do. Value conflicts do play some role in this. Republicans much more often than Democrats will focus on the freedom of a company owner to set his own wages against a backdrop of market competition. But this view is typically considered to align with social utility, too. So it isn’t that the Republicans emphasize the autonomy (of company owners) and the Democrats emphasize social utility. Rather, the Republicans maintain that their solutions also create the greatest social utility. Here though, they make certain assumptions about how the markets work. For example, they will often argue that the market will regulate itself. As company owners have to compete for good laborers, wages will raise. In addition, Republicans will often also argue that raising the minimum wage will hurt the macro-economy by leading to an increase in unemployment. Company owners who would like to hire more workers will be unable to if wages are higher; and indeed they may have to let some employees go if their labor costs increase.
The Democrats have fundamental differences in their generally accepted view of how the markets work on the issues discussed. First, they emphasize that markets have not traditionally led to fair and adequate wages. Second, they view the increase in minimum wages as having a long-term net positive effect on the macro-economy. Those people who now work for $8.45 or $10.00 per hour cannot get by on those wages. So the government should intervene to create social fairness. But this will not cost jobs. To the contrary, those people with the increased wages will generally spend every cent that they make because they need that money to meet their basic needs. While they now at times have to chose between paying an electric bill, getting medicine, paying rent, or other needs, they will be able to do those things more comfortably. But since they will be spending all of that money on goods and services they need, they will be spurring on economic demand, which ultimately will create jobs. So in this debate Republicans emphasize the short-term loss in jobs and the negative impact on the economy. But Democrats emphasize the long-term job gain because of the increase in demand that will result from more spending.The fundamental difference at play in this discussion, though, is not about values but about facts: How do the markets work? Will the market push toward an increase in wages that meets the goals of social utility on its own or must government intervene? Will the increased wages lead to increased unemployment or will it spur job growth?
We find a similar issue at work in questions about the increase in tax rates for the wealthiest Americans. In early 2019 Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a junior senator from New York, proposed a marginal tax rate of 70% on those earning over $10 million annually. Elizabeth Warren has proposed a tax on America’s mega-wealthy billionares. Bernie Sanders has proposed very high estate taxes. These taxes on those in top tax brackets, they all argue, will produce needed revenue so that not only social security will not have to be cut (as some Republicans now suggest is needed) but so that we can afford medicare for all, free community college and tuition debt forgiveness. The Republicans, by contrast, argue that these taxes would lower the incentive of the wealthiest to work and to produce more wealth. It would also take money out of hands of the wealthiest Americans and stagnate the economy. In this debate, too, sometimes a question of values does come to the fore. Republicans are more likely than Democrats to argue that company owners have a right to the money they have earned. Democrats, by contrast, will more likely dispute that in our current system the money that has been earned is rightfully all due to the company owners. The owners profits have been generated in part because of the labor of their employees. In many of these cases fair wages were not paid, so the company owners took home huge profits while the workers struggled. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, for example, have both highlighted that the Walton family, the owners of Walmart, has become the wealthiest family in the world at the very time when Walmart employees in some cases have needed government assistance to make ends meet, even when they work their jobs full time. This argument clearly cuts along lines of fairness, equity and social utility. But the point here is that at least in part Democrats and Republicans will both argue that their proposals generate the greatest utility within the macro-economy. Republicans will argue that it is better for society to allow “trickle-down” economics to kick in. Democrats deny that trickle-down economics works effectively.
Here, given that at least with a focus on social utility, the question is not one of values but is one of a proper understanding of the facts, it might seems that things should be simplified theoretically. If we don’t have a value conflict but only a conflict in the interpretation of the facts, then all we have to do is show which view is supported by facts and we should get ethical consensus. Easy peasy! However, clearly in reality, things don’t work this way. Indeed, if the facts were clarified, then members of the respective parties would likely take recourse in values conflicts after all. But for now this counterfactual speculation doesn’t have to be tested, since members of the two parties can now simply retreat to their own economic experts. The Republicans, along with President Trump, who recently gave a medal of freedom to Alfred Laffer, appeal to a group of economists who are still basically supportive of the supply-side economics that Laffer helped to develop. The Democrats, for their part, rely on economists who are more Keynesian. Those Keynesian economists will emphasize that the market simply has not corrected to adjust for fair higher wages. They will also point to the extremely high marginal tax rates under the administration of FDR and in the pre-Regan period, were at times over 90%, and still resulted in strong economic growth. These higher marginal tax rates, they will note, historically did not destroy the incentives of the wealthiest to invest or harm the economy.
So we end up with no easily settled facts. Here, part of the problem consists in the lack of consensus within the field of economics. The dismal science, as it has long been called, has not generated a single dominant paradigm that unifies researchers in the area. So there are at least some recognized experts who support both of the alternative types of positions mentioned. In some cases the facts just aren’t so easy to decide upon.
Yet there is a more concerning problem — namely, that even in some areas in which there is consensus, we still do not get people to give up the factual disputes. Climate science is perhaps the major area of ethical importance in which this is demonstrated. Here, as in ethical debates about economic policy, the ethical argument isn’t one of social utility against some other value — like some imagined individual rights to pollute. Both the Democrats and Republicans claim to want a policy that produces social utility. However, in this case, Republicans in he United States will not accept the authority of climate scientists but insist instead on highlighting extremely marginalized or minority voices within that debate or the voices of pundits who are not experts in the field. The ethical dispute remains one of facts, but in this situation debates continue despite the fact that there is largely consensus among experts about what the facts of the matter are. The question of what non-rational factors influence our decision-making in such cases, making us imperious to the facts, is a thorny issue that will have to be taken up on its own.