Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Death and Taxes...Well, Ethical Theory and Taxes Anyway

A couple of ethics questions, one applied and one theoretical:

Max Alaniz asks,

“Can taxes be fair?”
The idea behind taxation is that there are certain functions that we asks the government to take care of and we have to pony up the money to make it possible. Is there a fair way of dividing up the burden. First, we need to differentiate between taxes that go for focused projects and those that go to the general fund. We need to pay for road maintenance and it seems fair that those who use the roads more pay more, so we fund it with gasoline taxes. That seems to be a fair tax.

But the question seems more to be about income taxes. Here we have two points that need to be made. First, the folks who argue for fairness in taxation are often the flat tax advocates. The idea is that if we all paid the same percentage of our incomes, then we would have fairness. Progressive taxation, where not only amount paid, but percentage paid is inherently unfair they argue because the wealthy pay more than their share.

The problem with the flat tax argument is that it confuses “wealth” with “value.” Money can be used to do two things, it can be used to purchase goods or services and it can be used to make more money. If you have greater wealth, more money, each dollar has a greater value. Consider two brothers, one a poor philosopher and the other a wealthy new economy entrepreneur. Both brush their teeth with equal frequency, for the same amount of time, applying the same amount of tooth paste. One is barely scraping by and can only spare a little money for toothpaste each week and so must buy the small tube. The other has plenty expendable income and so can buy the larger tube, the economy sized. Over the course of the year, the poorer brother has had to spend more on tooth paste because he had less money. If you have more money, each dollar is more valuable in that it can purchase more goods. Similarly, suppose you were given the following offer, “Either you can invest one million dollars for a year and keep all the money you make with it or you can have ten million dollars to invest and keep one tenth of what you make.” You should choose the ten million because having more money opens up more lucrative opportunities. If you have more money, each dollar is worth more because it can be used to make more money.

As such, we need a progressive tax scheme if we are going to have any chance of fairness in sharing the burden. The question is can we ever accurately determine the relation between wealth and value accurate enough to have fair tax tables and while it seems like the two are not terribly out of whack as we have them now, I’m not sure what the mechanisms economists have developed to judge, but maybe some of the econ folks out there could comment.

The second part of the discussion is whether fairness is the only operative virtue here. Taxation is designed not only to fund the government, but also to direct resources in directions that are socially beneficial. If there are places we want people to spend money because we think them advantageous to the society, then we give tax breaks for it. We can employ lots of people if we have new housing being built, so we give credits for the interest paid on mortgages. This provides an incentive for people to spend their money in ways that advance the general welfare. As such, we will allow people to pay less than their fair share in income tax if they are using their income in ways that advance the general welfare.

Jeff Maynes asks,
“In ethics, if one wishes to rely on multiple ethical theories in decision making, does that commit one to a choice between (a) an alternative, supra-theory that uses all of the traditional theories and (b) anti-theoretical view of ethics? Or is this a false choice?”
The point of an ethical theory is to provide a definition for the basic notions of “morally right” and “morally wrong.” Utilitarianism, for example, defines morally right in terms of creating the best overall consequences for everyone, while deontology defines moral rightness and wrongness in terms of absolute moral duties. There are several classical moral theories that all appeal to our intuitions in certain cases, but conflict in others. The problem is that these ethical theories posit different foundations for ethics and so don’t fit nicely together.

One possibility, the hope of nearly every student to whom I’ve ever taught moral theory, is that there is some sort of meta-system that will decide which system is operative in any given situation. Philosophers of the last couple decades, however, have had other ideas and tried to do away with theory. These are the options Jeff mentions. There is a third option, however, that has become popular in certain quarters – deliberative democratic discourse. The idea is that ethical theory can narrow down the number of morally acceptable possibilities, then it is the job of society at large to engage in critical, thoughtful discussion in order to resolve the conflict based on non-moral, contextual factors. It is not anti-theory because the results of ethical theories are still taken seriously, but it is not the sort of supra-theoretical approach because there is no deterministic meta-ethical algorithm that does the thinking for you.