Moral Hazard, Risk, and Teleological Ethics

Tue Aug 23, 2005

Malcolm Gladwell has an angry article in the New Yorker about the American health care system. Like many graduate students I knew, I didn’t have health insurance in graduate school because it wasn’t provided or subvented and thus couldn’t be afforded. After severely spraining my ankle playing football, I laid off the contact sports for the rest of my stay in Florida. If, like someone on my blogroll, I had broken a wrist or arm, I would not have had to ask the doctor to put an Ace bandage on it–as in Gladwell’s account–because I could have borrowed the money from a bank or the government. Anything much more serious than that, however, I’d rather not think about. I do have insurance now for the first time since my freshman year as an undergraduate, and I’m grateful.

Gladwell’s article discusses how the concept of “moral hazard” affects debates about social insurance in the U.S. Curious to learn more about the history of it, I did some preliminary searching and came across an article by John Hayes in an 1895 number of the Quarterly Journal of Economics. (See my citeulike link for full bibliographic information.) Hayes’s article only mentions it in passing, but he does suggest that “ethical progress removes more and more moral hazard” (449). “Ethical progess,” you might be thinking, “where did Hayes ever get such a strange notion?” In a chapter of my dissertation, I consider Olaf Stapledon’s PhD dissertation published as A Modern Theory of Ethics, and its soi disant teleological ethics, and examine its influence upon his Last and First Men and its intellectual heritage in the work of Samuel Alexander, Lloyd Morgan, and other emergent evolutionists. (Another book, I’m currently reading, Panpsychism in the West, has a chapter on these thinkers.)

I’ve come to grow interested in how contemporary transhumanists have completely abandoned or modified beyond recognition any notion of “ethical progress”–how they got from there to here. I’m presenting a paper on this topic at the upcoming SLSA conference in Chicago in November and will post more details about the argument later.