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Arguments from symmetry

November 25, 2009

Mathematically inclined people tend to appreciate symmetry and find it all around us. Probability is mostly about symmetry (equi-probable events etc…), geometry is mostly about symmetries, I could go on. Steve Landsburg is a mathematician/economist/philosopher with a taste for pushing symmetry arguments to their extremes. He recently asked:

So if you think it’s okay for tenants to discriminate but not landlords, you’ve got to face the question: What is the ethically relevant distinction here? It’s clearly not market power, so what, if anything, is it?

I do not deny that there might be a good answer to that question, but I must admit I can’t imagine what it would be.

I don’t deny that most abstract thinking is and ought to be guided by symmetry considerations. However, there is nothing “natural” about symmetry a priori. If we look at the physical world, we see achirality, i.e. left shoes unaccompanied by right ones, everywhere. Molecules often exist in one shape but not in the symmetric (reflected) one. You could say that such mirror images should be there and often chemists build them in their labs, but the reason why they don’t exists in nature is not so obvious.

Likewise with ethical questions. It is indeed instructive to point out asymmetries in the way we judge the world. But I’m not surprised that such discrepancies abound. Here is my attempt at answering Landsburg’s question:

If I had to take up the position that “it’s okay for tenants but not landlords to discriminate” I’d say that market transactions are mostly impersonal and that the benefits of an open society derive from working for people we don’t know and having people we don’t know working for us (I’m not talking about the direct employer-employee relationship, but more generally about the system of production). The rule that landlords shouldn’t discriminate could have evolved as an attempt to reinforce the notion that price signals should take precedence over other considerations, in fact formalizing a norm already prevalent in society. I don’t know if this counts as an ethical distinction, but it’s maybe more of a rule-utilitarian distinction.

I could be wrong.

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