Science, morality, tax and a monkey with a gun

This post is a bit weird, so you should know two things before you read it:

  1. I’ve already written this post once but WordPress ate it.
  2. It was already weird and probably will only have got more so in the retelling.

Unfortunately, having a post in my head means I have to write it and publish it, apparently.

I recall from philosophy of science that scientific process is essentially made up of two processes, induction and deduction.

Induction is the process by which general rules are created from observing individual phenomena. Deduction is the process by which these general rules are used to predict outcomes.

You can see a lot of parallels between areas of philosophy. I remember thinking that induction was akin to acquiring a posteriori knowledge from epistemology and deduction was akin to a priori knowledge. The combination of the two is something that would be called synthetic a priori according to Kant and is a fair reflection, I think, of how our applied scientific knowledge comprises two distinct elements.

Now, I hadn’t thought of looking for patterns in other areas of philosophy but I was reading Martin Hearson’s post: Secondments, democratic scrutiny and corporate tax. I was considering replying to his comment about how the truth about morality is that people simply think that “tax dodging by people richer than I am is bad”, and I was thinking about the difference in deontological moral theories and consequentialist moral theories, a particular axe of mine I like grinding.

Now, the fact is people are selfish. People chop and change their moral codes to suit themselves. They defend the use of principles when the outcome appears immoral to others and they cite the consequences of outcomes when the application of a principle fails to please them.

The tax avoidance debate is a good example of this because the law is essentially a rule-based, deontological system. And it tries to reflect morality, however people actually decide that. Of course, people try to navigate the rules whilst trying to secure the best outcome, as with any set of rules. However, other people are observing this and deciding that the rules are not producing a “moral” outcome.

This is purely based on criteria that are not factors in the existing deontological rule (eg turnover, sales, number of staff, capital deployed or just a subjective call on what would be ‘enough’ tax etc).

This is a selfish judgement, as Martin implies, but aren’t they all?

So people are observing that certain outcomes appear “immoral” and are positing new general rules that could produce “fairer” outcomes. They are using “moral induction” to help produce a new moral rule which they can then deploy as a deontological rule in deductive style.

But, the essence of my new approach to this, is that rule-based morality, a deontological system, may be formed by the consequentialist approach in the first instance.

For me, this isn’t just babble, by the way. It helps explain the fundamental disconnect between the different “sides” of the tax avoidance debate. In my head, at least.

I don’t think there are actually different sides. Certainly not actually between those complaining about tax avoidance and those tax professionals who are talking in favour of the rule of law.

It’s easy to contrast deontological and consequentialist theories of morality. But, what if they aren’t in competition? Perhaps they dovetail in the same way as induction and deduction.

The challenge, though, for those who argue primarily the rule of law, is to show that some of the rules we have already arose to challenge moral phenomena. And for those who are challenging the status quo, not that the outcomes are unfair, but that the rule itself is not as morally correct as it could be.

So, in summary, here’s a monkey with a gun.

I just like this picture OK


I forget it’s relevance from the original post, but there we are.

About Ben Saunders

I'm a Chartered Tax Adviser and a freelance writer. This is my personal blog about, well, mainly taxation. I might put other stuff in. Who knows.
This entry was posted in being pretentious, Rambling, Ranting, Rule of law, Talking Tax. Bookmark the permalink.

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