Even though no one would expect you to stay home from work to take care of a stranger’s sick child, we would say that of course it is moral to stay home from work to take care of your sick child. That is your duty.
We would say that of course it is immoral to give a job in a large corporation or government agency to someone because he or she is a relative. That is nepotism.
What about specifying that your family will inherit a small business? Some people would say that this is moral and some people would disagree. The situation is ambiguous.
Our moral sense in these cases is affected by whether we are thinking in terms of small-scale society or large-scale society. In the case of the sick child, we think of what works best in a small-scale society. In the case of a corporation or government agency, we think in terms of what works best in a large-scale society. In the case of passing along a small business, we are not sure which moral lens to use.
The principles of conduct that work best in a small-scale society sometimes do not work in large-scale society, and vice-versa. If you are considering having someone paint your bathroom, it is appropriate to use a signed contract and financial incentives — but only if that person is a stranger. You would not do that if it were your spouse painting the bathroom.
The boundary between small-scale society and large-scale society can be approximated by Dunbar’s number. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar suggested that humans have the mental capacity to keep track of about 150 other people as personal contacts. Beyond that number, we have difficulty recognizing and remembering people’s individual characteristics. While there is nothing exact about the number 150, I do believe that there is an important change in human relationships somewhere in the vicinity of the Dunbar number.
For example consider an organization, such as a business or a club. When the size of the organization is sub-Dunbar, you can get along without an organization chart, written rules or formal decision processes. When the group must make a decision, we know who will be affected and how to obtain their point of view. The decision can be arrived at by informal consensus.
When the organization grows beyond the Dunbar number, it reaches a point point where your decisions affect people in the organization that are unknown to you personally. That is why super-Dunbar organizations find that they need written communication channels and procedural structures for making decisions. Otherwise, there will be miscommunication and people will be working at cross-purposes.
Legal historian Henry Sumner Maine, who lived in the 19th century, noted a difference between societies based on status and societies based on contract. In a status society, conflicts are resolved by someone who has a hierarchical position that grants him the right to make the decision. In a contract society, conflicts are resolved according to rules specified in laws or agreements. Although Super-Dunbar states can function as societies of status, in the West we have adopted the society of contract.
In a society of status, someone who is low in the hierarchy has no recourse. In a society of contract, a low-status consumer or worker can choose a different seller or employer. A low-status citizen can claim formal legal rights.
When people confuse micro-morality and macro-morality, they make mistakes. Treating a micro-moral problem as a macro-moral problem is one mistake. Treating a macro-moral problem as a micro-moral problem is another mistake.
For example, sexual conduct is a primarily a micro-moral problem. I do not need to pay attention to the sexual conduct of people who are not in my vicinity. Yet we seem to want to enact and enforce rules to govern the sexual conduct of everyone.
Organizing specialization and trade in a complex economy is primarily a macro-moral problem. It is a mistake to apply “caring and sharing,” which is micro-morality. The more we rely on micro-morality in the macro world, the more likely we are to see misery and tyranny.
Once we get past the Dunbar number we need ways to protect the individual from the tyranny of the mob. We are better off giving scope to individual rights, including the right to private property and the pursuit of profit.
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