About Rationally Speaking

Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The limits of reasonable discourse

By Massimo Pigliucci

From time to time I have a recurring discussion with my friend Benny, the producer of the Rationally Speaking podcast. He feels that two topics should be off the table when it comes to rational discourse, be that on the podcast, this blog, or at the New York City Skeptics meetups he and I co-host: politics and ethics.
Benny reckons that when it comes to discussions about politics or ethics too often reasonable people can produce arguments that are both rational and at odds with each other. This, I take his argument to be, suggests that reason cannot settle these matters. Since the same topics (especially politics: I am an unabashed progressive liberal, he is one of the few reasonable libertarians I know) also lend themselves to high emotional reactions, it is best to simply set them aside. It’s Benny’s version of the demarcation problem for skeptics.
I disagree, and for a couple of reasons. Let me first briefly consider the obvious one: the role of emotions in these discussions. Of course people get emotional when they talk about politics and ethics (two topics that, incidentally, are far from being logically independent from each other). People care, so their hormones flow. It is hard to imagine the same kind of emotional involvement when one is discussing string theory or the Goldbach conjecture (though you’d be surprised by how some scientists or mathematicians get flushed if their pet theory is attacked!). But the fact that a topic of conversation generates passion is certainly no reason to think that rational discourse cannot take place. “Truth springs from argument amongst friends” and all that.
My second point is less obvious. Underlying Benny’s objection to rational discussions of politics and ethics seems to be the idea that logic and rationality must lead to one right answer, and that if one rejects that answer one is simply being irrational. Let’s set aside for a moment the obvious fact that people do, in fact, reject rational conclusions all the time, simply because they don’t like them, or they don’t fit well with their parochial view of the world (think creationists, for instance). It is demonstrably not the case that there is always one logical answer to every question that can be approached logically.
Consider the hypothetical landscape in the figure accompanying this post. That particular graph is meant to illustrate the idea of multiple adaptive peaks in genotypic space, with natural selection pushing a population of organisms up the closest available peak (high fitness) and away from any valley (low fitness). Similar situations occur in computer science, mathematics, economics, and — I maintain — in rational discourse more generally.
Think of every peak as a particular, viable solution to whatever the problem happens to be (survival in a given environment, efficiency of a computational algorithm, or the search for a good political or ethical system). In the graphic example above, there are three peaks: one is taller, the other two are of about equal height. The taller peak represents the optimal solution across the landscape, while the other two stand for suboptimal but viable solutions. If we were talking about politics or ethics, this would correspond to saying that one political or ethical system is in fact “best” (under whatever criteria one is using) and therefore rational, while two more are also rational, but not quite as good. So reasonable people could make an argument for one or the other, or the third, of the proposed solutions, particularly when practical considerations may exclude, or make less likely, the implementation of the optimal solution represented by the highest peak.
Moreover, in many cases there may not even be a highest peak, but a number of alternative strategies that achieve more or less equal results. Rational people, then, could defend any or all of those strategies without necessarily being able to settle on a particular one as the obviously best choice. This would not mean that there was no point in having a rational discussion about it, because reason would still be helpful to avoid the many valleys or flat parts of the landscape, those that do not correspond to sufficiently viable solutions to whatever problem is at hand.
The analogy can be pushed a bit further, hopefully before reaching a breaking point. In biology it is a well known fact that if the environment in which evolution takes place changes, so does the adaptive landscape: you move from air to land, say, and those formerly really useful wings you got begin to look more like a hindrance than an advantage (think penguins). Similarly in politics and ethics: the “environment” here may be represented by the facts on the ground for a particular society, or even reflect certain meta-assumptions about what sort of solutions are acceptable (e.g., I can see the logic of libertarianism, but my parameter space for possible solutions is defined by certain concepts of fairness and justice that clash with the libertarian ethos).
Even those meta-assumptions, of course, can in turn be the subject of rational discussions — just like the axioms of mathematical theorems can themselves be justified or rejected by the community of mathematicians depending on a range of criteria, including how useful any given axioms are when deployed as the starting point for specific theorems.
What about science, some like Sam Harris might ask? Since science is based on empirical facts, can it not avoid this sort of problem, and actually settle us on a solution, even for political and ethical problems? I wrote what I think of Harris’ idea that ethical issues can be settled by science elsewhere. But even Harris has been talking about a “landscape” of moral solutions to our problems, indeed invoking the very same metaphor I have employed here.
Moreover, science itself suffers from an analogous problem, known in philosophy of science as the underdetermination of theory by the data. The idea is that sometimes (some philosopher would claim always), empirical data is simply insufficient to discriminate between two or more viable theories. This doesn’t mean one cannot talk rationally about those theories. For one thing, one can logically eliminate a lot of other theories that are not compatible with the data. Moreover, scientists often invoke extra-empirical (and hence, strictly speaking, not scientific) criteria for theory choice, such as simplicity, or aesthetic appeal. The point is, not even science is immune from the problem of multiple reasonable solutions to a given problem — but that certainly hasn’t stopped scientists from claiming that their enterprise is eminently rational, and rightly so.
The metaphor of a landscape in logical space therefore argues that reasonable people can rationally disagree about issues in science, skepticism, economics, politics and ethics. That does not mean that rational discussions of these topics are fruitless, because they help the participants (if they are in good faith) to delineate the areas of the landscape where no peak can be found, and also forces them to examine more closely why they insist on climbing one particular peak given that there are several available for exploration. As for the emotional part, well, as David Hume famously put it: “It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger.” It is because I care about the world that I’d rather see my finger scratched than the world to end.


  1. "It is because I care about the world that I’d rather see my finger scratched than the world to end."

    Personally I'd rather have my finger scratched than incinerated because I care about my finger.

  2. I wonder if making the distinction between what is 'rational' and what is 'right' would help at all in approaching this topic. Something, in this case a subjective viewpoint/opinion concerning politics/ethics, is Rational if it is reasonable or based on reason, the employment of rationality. Something else is Right if it is correct or true. Now, in some cases these two categories exist in cooperation, 2+2=4 is both Rational and Right. Unfortunately, Politics and Ethics are not solely within the arena of Mathematics (absolutes) and so, while there are Absolutes in both categories, there are also Irrational things that are Right and Rational things that are Wrong.

    Perhaps you can shed more light on this distinction, please?

  3. Massimo,

    According Robert Aumann, reasonable people can't disagree and still be considered "reasonable".


  4. I use a similar metaphor from mathematics.

    Suppose that mathematics is the "cap" for the limits of rationality -- all epistemic problems that mathematics has are shared by all other (at least all other scientific) disciplines. Now suppose one wants to solve for x in the following:


    From the quadratic equation, x=-b +/- (((sqrt(b^2-4(ac))/2a), or more than one answer without more information (like a physical process by which to judge the meaning of the two values).

    Now, if the first supposition holds, then it follows that a rational ethic may possibly have multiple good answers, in the same way that a mathematical problem can have multiple good answers. I'm not sure if the first supposition always holds, but I think the metaphor is useful in stimulating calmer and rational discourse on controversial subjects.

  5. It would be refreshing to see rational arguments about politics, in which people rationally disagree, and rule out positions that are incompatable with the data.

    Massimo, you and Benny publish some of your debates.

  6. Massimo:

    I would love to hear your thoughts on the issue of incommensurability as well in the philosophy of science, as this relates to politics as well, in my opinion.

  7. Michael,

    I'm not sure that making a distinction between rational and right is helpful here. The question in ethics is whether something that someone says is "right" turns out to be rational, and according to what parameters. But I'll keep thinking about it.


    the problem with incommensurability is that even in Kuhn it was ill-defined. If my incommensurable one means that the same term may have different referents within the context of two theories, sure. But to make the further claim that people simply can't talk to each other because they don't realize that they are literally talking about different things, that seems too reach for me to digest.


    Aumann is wrong.

  8. I used to agree that rational discussion of politics was basically pointless, and that it basically boiled down to personal preference. I still think that rational discussion of policies has no real place within politics, that's just very rarely how political decisions are made.

    That being said, I've come to think you can actually discuss politics in a rational, empirical way. My opinion changed largely from a book I read called The Logic of Political Survival, which presents a pretty cynical model of political decision making, but in my opinion an accurate one. Now, generally when discussing politics with people, I try to shy away from ideological arguments and stick to empirical ones.

    Massimo, if you think that two equally rational people, presented with the same data, have reached equally valid but different conclusions, do you see any purpose for further debate?

  9. I think that I basically agree with your conclusions, but I'm having trouble making out exactly what those conclusions are; I think this is because the analogy between social systems and biological fitness landscapes is terribly overburdened, and you've actually used the analogy in different and subtly inconsistent ways.

    As I understand it, the height at any given point on the landscape represents the ability of a given set of social institutions to fulfill a given set of preferences under a given set of practical considerations. The institutions are the "genome," the preferences and practical considerations are the "environment." So when you say that "practical considerations may exclude, or make less likely, the implementation of the optimal solution represented by the highest peak," this sounds like a contradiction in terms. If a given "social genome" is excluded by practical considerations, isn't it by definition a "valley" on the landscape, not a "peak?"

    Or maybe you're suggesting that some forms of proposed, radically different social order are clearly preferable if we could get there in an instant (higher peaks,) but completely re-ordering society would require large temporary sacrifices (leaving our local peak.) But here the analogy seems to break down because, while biological evolution has no sense of the future and cannot plan, social institutions are created and maintained by human beings, who can and do accept temporary losses in order to obtain large future gains. It is not hard to think of historical examples of successful revolutions leading to better long-term outcomes at the cost of temporary sacrifices.

    Okay, maybe one can save the analogy by adding further clarifications and qualifiers, but at that point it gets so baroque and confusing that I really think that it would be better to just discard it.

  10. This is why I like to read this blog! That is a very intriguing metaphor.

    The main problems for finding one reasonable solution accepted by everybody in ethics and politics seem to be (1) the complexity of the questions and the difficulty of testing ideas experimentally, and (2) that people do not even agree on the criteria for what is a good solution. But just because it is complicated that does not mean we should give up; and for the criteria, we can at least become aware of that and have a nice discussion one meta-level up, so to say.

    Moreover, scientists often invoke extra-empirical (and hence, strictly speaking, not scientific) criteria for theory choice, such as simplicity, or aesthetic appeal.

    See here, this is my central problem with your definition of science in myriad of discussions before. If you do not consider simplicity / parsimony / Occam's razor as an integral part of the scientific method, of what defines science, then science simply cannot work as a heuristic to find the best provisional model of the world.

    Next to the idea "we evolved from ape-like ancestors through this parsimonious series of presumed character changes" there can always be the idea "we evolved from ape-like ancestors by first evolving into tulips, then into a bug, then into a fish... etc., all in a few generations and without leaving fossils". If you seriously argue that me rejecting the second is not scientific (just like you argue that me rejecting an analogous non-parsimonious idea that has the word "supernatural" hastily scrawled over it is unscientific), then science simply cannot home in on any provisional model at all, ever. We scientists must be allowed to reject unnecessarily complicated explanations that are indistinguishable from equivalent simpler ones without getting an OK from the philosophy department around the corner every time.

  11. Massimo,

    That's all I get? "Aumann is wrong"? How about an argument or something to back it up?

  12. i've heard numerous stories of "science" being equally resistant and perhaps emotional in the face of contrary notions.

    where an early hypothesis is rejected with the same sort of bias one often sees in such emotionally charged topics as politics/ethics.

    the link between h. pylori and ulcers is one that springs to mind.

  13. and yes, a rational discussion can lead to personal insights :)

    whilst recently communicating in a long winded discussion on the nature of Truth, I noticed several assumptions on my part that were so obviously ill considered I had to change several parts of my overall argument !!

    but this did not prevent me from thinking the other participant was a bit of an idiot for his views ;-)

  14. "an unabashed progressive liberal"...hmmm

    I have been very disappointed in this site because the underlying liberal assumptions often leak out and infect thinking in other (non-political/ethical) areas. Of course you can mix these things if you like, but I think it does the cause of reason and rationality a disservice if someone who has a conservative tendency (not an unabashed conservative, note) is - by the style and assumptions of much of the writing - not made to feel welcome here.

  15. Funny you should mention Hume, who argued of course that emotions are prior to reason -- so it is absurd to argue that one should not try to argue things like morals and politics, since you cannot use pure reason, as one cannot use pure reason in any argument of any sort. Emotions are prior.

  16. "Benny reckons that when it comes to discussions about politics or ethics too often reasonable people can produce arguments that are both rational and at odds with each other."

    "Underlying Benny’s objection to rational discussions of politics and ethics seems to be the idea that logic and rationality must lead to one right answer, and that if one rejects that answer one is simply being irrational."

    I might be misunderstanding something here, but do these sentences not contradict each other?

  17. Charles,

    Aumann's agreement theorem is for intelocutors with shared priors. As ever with Bayesian arguments, the devil is in the priors.

    In fact, this perfectly illustrates Massimo's point. He's saying that yes, in cases where you share priors, you can rationally get to an agreement, but if there are fundamental differences (e.g. Massimo says "my parameter space for possible solutions is defined by certain concepts of fairness and justice that clash with the libertarian ethos") then agreement may be impossible.

    Nice metaphor Massimo! It reminded me of when I read Darkness at Noon: it actually convinced me of the logic of the Revolution, but I disagreed entirely with their premisses! It's a strange feeling.

  18. Banterist,

    if two rational people have reached different but equivalent conclusions then the discussion may shift to the practical feasibility of the alternatives, which may not be equal. Or to the different sets of assumptions adopted by the two, if they were different.


    I think the analogy holds well even under the scenarios you suggest, though of course any analogy can be brought to the breaking point. For instance, even in biology a given landscape is considered fixed only if the ecological conditions don't change significantly, after which the peaks themselves may shift or disappear.


    we are not going to go back to our discussions about methodological vs. philosophical naturalism ;-) And no, scientists don't need authorization from philosophers every time they invoke extra-empirical criteria, but it is important to acknowledge that science itself necessarily incorporates extra-empirical (and therefore not scientifically justifiable) criteria...


    I did make an argument, it's this entire post. If you want a point-by-point response to Aumann that may have to wait until I feel like writing again on this topic.


    sorry you feel unwelcome here, but I think it would be hypocritical of me not to acknowledge my political positions, especially when writing about politics. By the way, I am considered an "extreme" liberal only in the US, because the American political spectrum is so narrow and tilted to the right. I am actually a social democrat, an only slightly to the left position in many European countries.


    well, for all the admiration I have for Hume, I think that his position on emotions having absolute primacy is mistaken. Modern neurobiology (not to mention, philosophically, virtue ethics) argue instead for a balanced integration, a feedback loop, between emotions and rational judgment.


    I don't see the contradiction there. Could you expand?

  19. MichaelPJ,

    I can see how a religionist and an atheist can exist on opposing sides of an unbridgeable gap. I don't see how two naturalists could. Their priors should be very similar.

  20. As I said I may have misunderstood. I took the first sentence I quoted to mean that Benny believes it is possible for individuals to hold conflicting views in the domain of politics and ethics that are equally rational. That is, each holds a justified(for them) belief which when utilised as part of an argument results in a valid conclusion; each conclusion being rational yet possibly opposed to, incompatible with, or contradicting the other. As such, Benny believes, more heat than light will result from engaging in conversations in this area because a dialogue leading to agreement is unlikely.

    I took the second sentence to be implying something along the lines that Benny considers, contrary to what I said above, that beliefs cannot be both rational and in conflict with each other because there is always one right answer.

    So when I said the sentences were contradictory what I meant was that it can't both be true that firstly, Benny thinks that divergent opinions can be equally rational, and secondly that Benny thinks only one of the divergent opinions is logically and rationally permissible.

    Your analogy regarding the hypothetical landscapes of ethical beliefs etc is a useful way to think about it. It bears some simarity to how Sam Harris talked about being able to scientifically ground ethical beliefs in his recent TED talk (http://blog.ted.com/2010/03/22/science_can_ans/). Empirical investigation can determine what consitiutes adequate conditions for human flourishing, but that the good life(lives) can be viewed as a number of peaks on a landscape where these conditions hold, a plurality of possible means to achieve that human flourishing.

  21. Massimo said: By the way, I am considered an "extreme" liberal only in the US, because the American political spectrum is so narrow and tilted to the right.

    I generally feel the same way (despite my living in the "liberal Northeast"), and then I read reports like these* and feel really frustrated.

    IOW, if Americans would prefer a distribution of wealth closer to that of Sweden (as the report suggests), then why the heck does the US electorate (overall, but especially in certain regions) seem tilted so far away from the kinds of policies and parties that might credibly move the country in that direction?

    My reflex is to blame educational differences. (After all, the report also suggests that Americans are way off in their estimates of how economically unequal their country actually is.) But, then, I don't know that, if the information itself were more equally distributed, it would make a significant difference in how Americans vote. That might be asking for more rationality (or critical thinking) than the country is currently capable of.

    * Thanks to Michael De Dora for referencing this in his last "picks" entry. Dan Ariely, a co-author of the study, also spoke about these results on the NPR radio show, Marketplace, some months back.

  22. Calxaed,

    hmm, I see. I think what I meant with the first sentence you refer to is that Benny - because of the belief I ascribe to him in the second sentence - thinks that political discussions are too easily overwhelmed by emotional rather than logical discourse. Of course, Benny, who is a regular reader of this blog, could intervene and clarify what *he* thinks...

  23. @jcm

    I'm always skeptical about the results of polls like that. How the question is phrased or how the data is presented leads to vastly different answers to the same questions. Nobody likes to say they're pro inequality, but you'll get a huge amount of people disagreeing with the question "Do you believe the government should redistribute wealth more equally?" then you would to the question "Do you believe wealth should be distributed more equally?" When people say "yes" to the latter, they're not thinking about the mechanisms by which it should be done.

    Also, when you poll people and ask what percentage of overall tax revenue the top 10% of people should pay, they consistently respond with less than the top 10% actually pays (off the top of my head, I don't remember the exact numbers, though).

    My point being that it's extremely unreliable to attempt to extrapolate overall ideological preferences from this kind of poll data

  24. "Modern neurobiology (not to mention, philosophically, virtue ethics) argue instead for a balanced integration, a feedback loop, between emotions and rational judgment."

    This is precisely why a rational debate about politics makes sense! We need to start peeling back the layers on emotionally-charged political beliefs, to clarify the underlying source of disagreement and thereby give both sides the opportunity to examine, and if appropriate, modify their beleifs.

    While I might be an extreme liberal as well, I don't think the conservative position is the only one that would benefit from some clarity. I always welcome enlightenment.

  25. Banterist: Having read the Norton & Ariely study, it seems reliable enough to me (e.g. the methodology looks sound), and the authors are fairly modest in their interpretation of the results.

    But I would agree that, Americans may prefer a greater degree equality than what actually obtains in the US, and yet (due to a combination of conflicting values and/or fallacious reasoning) come to support policies that actually have the effect of increasing inequality.

    But the study also demonstrates that, regardless of their preferences, Americans believe that the country is far more equal (in terms of wealth distribution) than it actually is. That's just an error in fact, which may or may not influence their voting habits once corrected.

  26. PS: Regarding Americans' views of what the wealthy should pay in taxes, see Figure 1 in this paper by political scientist Larry Bartels, which indicates that a plurality (51.6%) believes that the rich pay "less than should" in taxes (compared to 32.8% for "about right" and 13.8% for "more than should"). That didn't stop them from supporting the Bush tax cuts, but that's what the paper seeks to explain.

  27. But excuse me, if that is your whole point, is that not rather silly? There is quite a difference between wishing that scientists would acknowledge that they are using extra-empirical criteria* and claiming that using these criteria is not scientific.

    Yes, they are not empirically supportable, but that does not mean that they are not part of what makes science science. I have used that example before, and do so again now because it still makes sense, but it is precisely like a mathematician writing an angry blog post about that arrogant ideology of "chemistism" trying to destroy math because some chemist presents results on the molar mass of a newly discovered unstable element without explicitly saying that they have done math instead of chemistry for that. No. They have done chemistry, and some elements of math are part of it. Likewise, a scientist using parsimony is doing science and not doing philosophy, because after removal of parsimony what would be left would not be science any more.

    *) Quite apart from the fact that I would like to see only one scientist who does not if asked. What you will likely find are, at worst, those who say: problem of induction? Yeah, I know, but I don't care, because my claims of knowledge are always provisional anyway.

  28. "Modern neurobiology (not to mention, philosophically, virtue ethics) argue instead for a balanced integration, a feedback loop, between emotions and rational judgment."

    Except it's the emotional component that tells us when our decision making processes are rational. The emotional is the final arbiter.

    Even if it's less rational than reliable.

  29. These are great arguments, Massimo, and I agree with them. However, what you're saying is that rational people can have a discourse on whether a particular political position is consistent with its assumptions. This is perhaps why I enjoy watching MSNBC and Fox, they NEVER ARE! You cannot argue with those assumptions though, which is where the real disagreements are. If I say that my parameter space is defined by universal education not being a proper role for government, and that the individual is more important than the common good, how can you argue against it? If we are both right on our basic assumptions, the rest is academic, isn't it? If so, then what is the point. The question is, can we argue rationally about our basic assumptions?

    I like your comment to Charles about Robert Aumann. Very profound. He seems to be on to something though, I will look into it more, I haven't yet.

  30. Benny,

    yes, I do think that at least some of the assumptions are themselves subject to reasonable discourse, just like mathematicians can reject certain axioms because of their consequences.


    where do you go the conclusion that emotions are the final arbiter?


    well, what sounds silly to me is your analogy with chemistrism, frankly. Using extra-empirical criteria is scientific but cannot justified empirically, which makes the point that there are some things that cannot be proven or disproven empirically, even within science. This is *not* a trivial conclusion, as all sorts of other things derive from it (including, of course, the fact that science has nothing to do with the supernatural, but we've had that discussion before). As for your response to the problem of induction, frankly it shows that you don't understand the problem of induction. It is not just a matter of admitting that one's conclusions are provisional, Hume was a bit smarter than that.

  31. Hm. Maybe I don't fully understand the problem of induction then. It always sounds a bit self-defeating to me, considering that it is impossible to live, or even learn the language in which you later read about the problem, without accepting knowledge gained through induction.

    What seems most relevant to me, however, especially considering that much greater minds than mine are grappling with the problem, is that you have just written that using certain extra-empirical criteria actually is scientific - because while I agree completely, that again destroys all possibilities I can see for understanding your position in the discussions we really do not want to open up again here. Well, agree to disagree, etc.

  32. One such source from which I've come to that conclusion would be Damasio, another Steven Rose. (And Cara Santa Maria just now on Larry King.) Our more rational/abstractive functions or long term predictive processes evolved to give assistance to the largely subconscious short term assessment processes, such as the Limbic system or systems, that had evolved beforehand. We haven't found a way to make them one, and for survival purposes, the short term assessments may be the more practical. For that or a closely related reason, that earlier system has maintained control of our decisions, at least when it comes to taking what could be final action. Example: The emotional brain can paralyze you with fear but the rational can only advise it on that score. There's been a lot written about this, and I expect you know that.
    Hume had insights that science is just catching up with, and I'll stick with him on this one.

  33. Massimo, I have no problem with your (or any reasonable person's) political beliefs. I am an admirer of the Vienna Circle - generally they did not mix their (leftish) politics with their work on science and reason. No one political position has a monopoly on rationality and I have read material on this site (a piece by Michael De Dora comes to mind) which is gratuitously insulting to those whose social or political perspective is different.

  34. I suppose it depends on your definition of reason. If by reason you mean that an organism has reasons for doing things, then reason probably has primacy (plants are rational in this sense). However, if we are talking about human-type reason, from an evolutionary standpoint Hume would be correct. In fact, there is very good evidence that we rationalize after the fact. We use reason to explain what was in fact an emotional response. We can then use reason, of course, to train ourselves and have more consistent and more rational responses in the future. But if that's the case, then emotions do have primacy. That's what all the research on cognition, the evolultion of morals, etc. that I have read say, anyway.

  35. Speaking of the supernatural discussion, it seems PZ has started agreeing with Massimo (or maybe he always did) http://scienceblogs.com/pharyngula/2010/10/its_like_he_was_reading_my_min.php

    I finished nonsense on stilts, the largest thing I disagree with is this supernatural business which seemed stuck on at the end. Yes, an all-powerful and arbitrarily willed god would not be empirically verifiable (unless he some how wanted to be). But supernatural is a phrase that usually covers everything from god to vampires and werewolves, the latter being empirically addressable.

    I apologise for being off-topic.

  36. 1) Benny's objection is in practice inapplicable because different people will never have the same body of evidence to draw on.

    2) In what important way is the processing of data into a landscape of variously probable theories more tainted by extra-empiricism than the collection of data? Note the extent to which we are comfortable discarding doubt regarding that.

    3) Your argument revolves around the role of reason. I don't think it would be sufficient for someone to assume reason was identical to empirical science, and then show science is guided by outside criteria. Since I am pretty sure you don't make that error, I'm particularly puzzled by how the form of the argument seems to assume the extra-empirical process used in selecting among theories is divorced from reason (i.e. the argument doesn't make sense without this assumption). After all, if science is simply a reason-based process (with the theory choosing process likely outside of some people's definition of science, but within others'), it is ultimately a process of using reason alone.

    4) Given the landscape model, I'm not sure if/why you resist the idea of (provisionally) "settling" on one topography per set of evidence, in which "logic and rationality must lead to one right answer, and that if one rejects that answer one is simply being irrational". Bear in mind that no two people will have the exact same set of evidence.

    5) "Since science is based on empirical facts, can it not avoid this sort of problem, and actually settle us on a solution, even for political and ethical problems?"

    This sentence would be clearer as one of the following:

    a) Since science is based on empirical facts, can it not always avoid this sort of problem at least in theory, and in theory settle us on a solution, even for political and ethical problems?"

    b) Since science is based on empirical facts, can it not always avoid this sort of problem in theory, and in practice settle us on a solution for at least some political and ethical problems?"

    c) Since science is based on empirical facts, can it not always avoid this sort of problem in theory, and actually settle us on a solution for most or all political and ethical problems, at least eventually?

    There are other possibilities as well; I'm not sure what you disagree with.

  37. All,

    thanks for the engaging feedback, this has been helpful to clarify my own thoughts (which is one of the reasons I write this blog...). Okay, now for a few more comments:


    well, it's nice of PZ to agree with me! I wonder what Jerry Coyne will make of this... Your point about the supernatural being so vague is correct, but that's precisely why it doesn't make any sense to say that one can reject *the* god hypothesis. It doesn't even look close to being anything like an hypothesis.


    no, I definitely don't mean reason that way, I don't think non-conscious organisms have reasons, they only do what they do largely because natural selection shaped them that way. Hume of course didn't known anything about evolution, and his point was certainly not informed by evolution. Regardless, nobody disagrees that emotions came before reason, but I think that the current fashion in cognitive science of arguing that we rationalize everything is a bit of a stretch. We have always known about rationalization, and it's nice to learn more about it, but are the scientists that publish these papers just rationalizing, or are they presented empirical evidence in rational manner?


    neither Michael nor I would ever argue that progressives have a monopoly on reason. But we do argue that progressive positions are often more reasonable (and more compassionate). You are welcome to disagree, and to present your reasons for it - hence this post.


    it's worth spending some time wrapping one's mind on the problem of induction. First, Hume never meant this to be an obstacle for pragmatic decisions, he knew perfectly well that all our knowledge is fallible and that we have to act somehow. But his point was not just that induction is fallible, but that in a deep sense there is no rational defense of it. Try to find one, and you'll soon run into circles. And that ought to be at the least slightly unsettling.

    As for the supernatural thing, if you go back and read my latest full post on this you'll find that I make a couple of distinctions. First, to admit that the practice of science requires extra-empirical moves is profound, because it implies that not everything can be settled empirically - even within science. Second, my main objection to the god hypothesis / supernatural testing is that, as I wrote above, there is no hypothesis in anything like scientists' (or philosophers') use of that term, and therefore no way to test anything. Dawkins' "argument from improbability" is not scientific because it relies *entirely* on Occam's razor, since no evidence can be brought to bear one way or the other on an ontological claim concerning an entity that is at best deeply ill-defined. But 'nough said about this topic, again!


    you may be confusing my own thoughts with my explanations of other people's thoughts. First of all, we are talking about discussions in which people do agree on what the evidence is, otherwise there is no discussion. The issues we are talking about are more "tainted" (your word) by extra-empirical criteria because values are not empirical facts (contra Harris). And I most certainly do *not* assume that reason is equivalent to empirical science, in fact I have been writing quite a bit to argue precisely that reason is much broader than just science (though science is, of course, based on reason).

  38. Sorry, Figure 1 does not appear in that version of the Bartels paper. If you're interested, try this one, instead.

  39. @ jcm

    I'm not saying the methodology isn't sound, I'm saying that those kind of studies are pointless if you're trying to translate them into policy. You can support a greater amount of equality in theory, but have legitimate issues with the way that would have to be achieved. I'd prefer it if people in general had a higher IQ, but would never support a policy that would restrict reproduction among people with low IQs (assuming it were reasonably demonstrated that it was primarily genetic.) Trying to infer that people support a government policy to make people more economically equal just because they say they support equality is just a poor leap.

    Also, in the paper you linked, he doesn't cite actual numbers, he just says that people support the rich paying "more" than they do. When you ask people to say specifically what percentage of tax revenue the rich DO pay, or SHOULD pay, they believe it's far less then they do in reality. People also have a very incorrect view of how many people are rich. Most people assume to be in the top 10%, you need to be a millionaire. In reality, to be in the top 6% you only have to make $100,000 a year.

  40. One through five correspond to my unanswered questions above.

    1) People may say they agree on the facts, but I deny that this is possible because personal experiences are relevant facts. For example, I do not think it is possible in practice for a tone deaf person to have all relevant facts in deciding how to allocate societal resources to youth music programs.

    2) I understand that you assume that values are not empirical facts. That's why this question (2) is generalized to include areas of inquiry in which you admit there are empirical facts. Your point is that theories are distinguished based on non-empirical criteria. My point is that data collection depends on the (past) non-empirical choosing of theories.

    3) If science* (including the methods used to distinguish among theories) is rationalist, your sub-argument regarding the scientific method fails. Let "science"=the scientific method and "science*"=science+rational methods of distinguishing among theories.

    4) While I think that only in theory could people agree on all facts, in such a case only one conclusion would be possible. That conclusion would not be a single policy prescription, but a landscape of such prescriptions. *One* landscape. (Alternatively, a landscape of policy prescriptions).

    5) You should be more clear about what ideas you reject. It is not enough to simply say you reject Harris' ideas when many people, including him, don't think you understand them.

    For example, Harris may be agnostic about our ability to ever in practice combine the components of human flourishing into a fungible unit with which we can compare goals, in which case we would not be able to objectively compare substantially different societies-i.e. a society with more freedom to one with more security. However, the moral landscape model still allows us to condemn societies that are objectively worse in one way from their near-twin that is not worse than them in any area but better in some way. In such a case, objecting that a practice (that is actually simply harmful) might have some benefit and therefore must(!) be accepted under Harris' moral framework would be silly, since the model only necessarily promotes unambiguously ameliorative practices. Yet you made such an objection. http://machineslikeus.com/news/what-if-beating-children-actually-good

  41. Brian, comments on your points, by number:

    1) If people don't have access to relevant facts then they are either ignorant or incapable (like a tone deaf person), in which case they are in no position to join rational discourse about the issues in question. (Would you allow a tone deaf person to lecture you on music?)

    2) The fact that data collection depends (in part) on non empirical choices is a well understood principle in philosophy of science. That only strengthens my objections to Harris, it doesn't undermine them.

    3) I don't see where you are going with this. There are several non-rational methods, some of which are part of science, and some of which are not.

    4) There is evidence from a variety of fields that the assumption that only one conclusion is valid for any complex problem is simply false.

    5) It is easy for Harris to claim that I simply don't understand him. I can counter-claim that he doesn't understand my objections. So there.

    > In such a case, objecting that a practice (that is actually simply harmful) might have some benefit and therefore must(!) be accepted under Harris' moral framework would be silly, since the model only necessarily promotes unambiguously ameliorative practices. <

    Either you don't understand my argument or you are willfully mischaracterizing it. All I meant to say is that empirical facts grossly under-determine "best" practices, and that "best" cannot be determined empirically, in which case Harris' approach fails.

  42. Unsettling? Again, not really seeing it. I assume you have to wear a philosopher's cap and/or expect all your knowledge to be 100% certain to appreciate it, but I am fine with relying on induction, really.

    Part of it is probably that I assume that in a sufficiently regular and "lawful" universe, induction cannot possibly fail to work, and further strongly suspect that an insufficiently lawful universe could not exist in the first place, or at least it would be utterly impossible for intelligence capable of pondering the problem of induction to exist in it. Certainly it would be rather hard to have a working brain if the physical constants of the universe randomly shifted their values at short intervals.

  43. Alex,

    again, Hume would agree with you. But the thing is, there is no rational defense for the assumption that the universe's regularity will persist, even until tomorrow. The only arguments in favor of that conclusion are inductive, which means that the only defense of induction seems to be inductive, which is circular, and ought therefore to be at least slightly unsettling...

  44. 1) The tone deaf person is an outlier demonstrating the principle. In practice, human experience is infinitely variegated and we can learn (somewhat) from each others' unique experience/evidence. Note that this is the argument for supporting diversity. Benny's characterization of discussion as taking place among people with the same important information, much less agreeing upon what is true is usually false.

    2) It does reinforce your argument but also puts it to scale. The problem science has is distinguishing among theories is of the same kind as the problem it has collecting true data. Just as the one is scarcely noticed on the road to putting a man on the moon, so too the other needn't bother (moral) science.

    3) I'm glad you put it to me that way so I understand where the unclarity is. In fact, I meant something quite different: that the non-empirical parts of science* are not necessarily arational. The contrary is an assumption necessary to your argument that went unacknowledged in the article, and I disagree with it.

    4) I do not understand if/why you limit the word "conclusion" so narrowly. Is it or is it not true that a problem can only have some true answers, such that a) anyone missing one when thinking about the problem is missing one and b) one can collect them all into a function and call that the "conclusion"-the narrowest possible true answer. As you said there is evidence from a variety of fields I'm sure examples will be at hand.

    5) Without resolving which of you (if not both) is correct in claiming the other misunderstands his argument, since such a state exists, it behooves you both to minimize describing ideas by referring to the other's name and position as a shorthand.

    Once again, the use of terms such as "in theory", "in practice", "some", and "all" would help when you describe Harris' approach as "failing".

    Your repeated use of the word "best" makes it unclear what you mean by "fails". If Harris' approach provides clear, empirical reason to prefer any of several societies to a certain society without determining which is best, is that a failure?

    If you merely mean that for most moral conflicts, the issue in contention is how to balance competing values (e.g. freedom v. security) and Harris' approach does not help with this in practice, I agree. Such issues could only be resolved with a unifying, fungible unit of human value.

    However, Harris tends to use the approach to empirically prefer some societies over extremely similar societies that are in no way better, which you have objected to.

  45. "...progressive positions are more often reasonable (and compassionate)"

    I can't make sense of this - what set of positions are you talking about? Or do you mean most conservatives are religious and therefore not so reasonable? What about non-religious conservatives (like me). Are our views less often reason-based than yours? And I suspect the effects of so-called progressive policies have not been as successful in alleviating suffering as many liberals think.

    My central point is this: I sense an in-group/out-group dynamic in operation here (mainly in-group - except me!). For me reason is narrow and blinkered if it does not actively confront such dynamics and effectively dissolve them. That's what reason and rationality is all about to me - not clever arguments (though I can do those too if you press me!).

    And on the issue of compassion, I too believe in it and seek to promote it. Compassion and courtesy. Inclusiveness. The them and us business is a bore.

  46. Even if the scientists are presenting their findings in a rational manner, that still doesn't disprove the existence of emotions before rationality. Plus, I'm not sure what presenting an arugment regarding factual findings has to do with emotions -- unless one's emotional connection to a certain theory obscures your reasoning. I see a lot of that with people who support Darwinism -- unless Darwinist findings undermine their ideology, in which case, suddenly Darwinism is being inappropriately used. They reject creationism or intelligent design in the physical and biological world, but embrace it in the social world, and even in psychology. It takes a lot of work for reason to overcome emotions, including emotional attachments to ideologies, etc. This more than suggests that emotions are prior to reason. It is certainly true evolutionarily.

  47. Mark,

    no, I don't think that only religious conservatives have problems with rational arguments. I consider libertarianism, for instance, to be largely irrational. The details of my argument have been posted elsewhere on this blog.

    Glad you believe in compassion, and glad you like reason, but this isn't about you. I never made the claim that all conservatives lack compassion or are rationally challenged, I made the far less sweeping claim that I think that all in all progressive positions (not individuals!) are more compassionate and rational, on average.


    1) The tone deaf person's example does not demonstrate your point at all, because the example is irrelevant to what we were discussing, for the reasons I just explained.

    2) If it reinforces my argument, I don't see why you keep bringing it up. The reason you can't do a science of morality is because values are not empirical facts, contra Harris.

    3) I never said that non-empirical methods are necessarily arational, I simply said that they cannot be justified empirically (hence scientifically). See, that's the problem when one equates science with rationality.

    4) I'm not sure what you are arguing here. I said that rational and empirical analyses do NOT necessarily lead to a unique conclusion, in which case reasonable people can disagree. This is a fact, not my opinion.

    5) I honestly think I have described Harris' opinions and why I disagree. I don't know what else I can do about it.

    > If Harris' approach provides clear, empirical reason to prefer any of several societies to a certain society without determining which is best, is that a failure? <

    On what criteria? What does he mean by best? Those criteria are non-empirical, they are values. I never said that science is irrelevant to societal choices, but before the science comes in we need to talk about values, hence my post.

  48. Liberals value cooperation over competition, conservatives value the reverse. It's almost that simple.

    Tends to explain why fundamentalists who are for the most part losers remain conservative. They lack the facility to cooperate competitively.

  49. Banterist: I agree with you.

    But then I find it interesting when Bartels concludes (based on his analysis of the NES survey) that "the strong plurality support for Bush’s tax cut...is entirely attributable to simple ignorance", which (if true) suggests that education (and/or intelligence) explains some of the difference in which policies people favor (or not).

    However, he also concludes that "there is no reason to imagine that a general increase in
    political information would, by itself, make the American public any less enthusiastic about the idea of repealing the inheritance tax." So the results here are mixed, with political information (or, conversely, political ignorance) playing a significant role, but not in any simple, predictable fashion.

    So, given that Europeans and Americans share similar egalitarian instincts (as evidence suggests), how would you explain the fact that political preferences and outcomes in the US are so less egalitarian than in Europe (or at least Sweden)? [Please don't feel pressured to answer. I'm partly just thinking out loud, inspired by Massimo's observation that "the American political spectrum is so narrow and tilted to the right".]

    My own hunch is that it has less to do with enlightened self-interest per se (i.e. what Bartels seems to think is lacking in the American public) and more explicitly to do with solidarity (or social norms), with Europeans (especially Swedes) having and showing more of it than Americans.

  50. Funny, I'm a classical liberal/libertarian, and I've always found modern liberals, Leftists, Socialists and Marxists to be irrational. Where religious conservatives are physical world creationists and intelligent designers, Leftists are social works creationists and intelligent designers. Classical liberals are consistent complex process/systems evolutionists. I find that position both rational and based on the facts, while I find the other two to be irrational and utopian.

  51. Massimo, I still feel that your claim that progressive positions are more rational on average is, at the very least, not particularly helpful. It is not a very enlightening way to approach the issue. I am more interested in developing a rational and compassionate set of positions than on labels and stereotypes. On libertarianism, I too have highlighted problems with it (on my blog).

  52. Mark,

    it isn't a question of being helpful, it is what I think, and I have from time to time laid out the reasons for it. If you disagree, you can lay out your reasons and we can have a discussion on the merits. That would be helpful.


    I'm not sure what you mean by liberal-libertarian, but you are making the all-too common error of conflating liberalism with socialism and Marxism (the latter two also being very different from each other). Of these three positions the only one that is truly irrational is Marxism, and for reasons that are symmetrical to why libertarianism is irrational.

  53. "...I made the far less sweeping claim that I think that all in all progressive positions (not individuals!) are more compassionate and rational, on average."

    I second Mark English's objection: even if that is true, it is a singularly unhelpful way of putting it.

    At best, you're saying that the characteristic "progressive" is correlated with "compassionate" and "rational" policy. Okay, but why not cut out the middleman and jump straight to compassion and rationality as criteria for judging policy? Why get excited about a weak proxy signal for rationality when we can go straight to the source?

    I'm also worried that as long as words like "liberal" and "conservative" dominate discourse on policy, people will (consciously or unconsciously) take them to be prescriptive rather than descriptive. "What do I think about nuclear power? Well, liberals don't like it, and I'm a liberal. So I guess I'm against nuclear power."

    Rationalists should debate policy in a way that makes it clear broader political allegiances are irrelevant to any one issue.

  54. @jcm

    I stopped reading after "I agree with you." (kidding)

    Most people's political opinions aren't rational, there's not much reason they should be. There's a substantial literature in economics discussing why it can make sense to hold irrational political opinions, since the cost of having them is basically zero (because the chance your individual vote has of changing the outcome of an election is effectively zero), but the cost of changing them (both in time researching and in the psychological cost, since most people become emotionally invested in their political identities) can be high.

    If you're interested, there's a good book on this called The Myth of the Rational Voter by Bryan Caplan. Although you'll probably disagree with a lot of the authors positions, it's well worth a read.

  55. Banterist: I'm currently in the middle of Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions by Dan Ariely (the behavioral economist who co-authored the study I cited above). As you might guess from the title, it's about the same premise that you recommend.

    That said, you might think that it's irrational of me to expect rationality (be it in the political domain or any other). Perhaps, but then I certainly don't expect perfect rationality of anyone - just enough rationality to help us to avoid extremes of maladaptive or dysfunctional behavior (or, in this case, extremes of economic inequality). Knowing that most others share the same (or similar) values is at least a helpful starting point.

    In fact, what I'm saying now is still related to Massimo's post above; particularly with respect to the utility of rational discussion (i.e. as a tool to help "delineate the areas of the landscape where no peak can be found"). I think we have reason to believe that (at least to some degree) we can use this tool to positive effect. What choice do we have?

  56. Massimo, I think we are talking at cross purposes. My focus is more on the meta-issues, and to the extent that I have commented on the site rather than the post I am arguably off-topic. I see what you are getting at with the landscape analogy/metaphor, but I find it all rather too vague to be useful. Likewise the talk about progressive positions being more rational on average - you have this infinite landscape of possible positions and you talk about arbitrary labels (like 'progressive') and averages! I repeat my meta-claim that you are operating here in practice like a religious group (in group) and 'non-believers' are not welcome. You are right, it's not about me, but my point is that even moderate conservatives are not welcome here. I may be wrong. There may be lots of moderate conservatives who participate here. But I suspect this is not the case, and I suspect part of the reason is the way that (unlike the case of the Vienna Circle) there is an implicit in-group dynamic (based on ideology) in operation.

  57. Mark,

    you are of course entitled to your opinion, but you may have noticed that a) I take a lot of criticism in the comments section; and b) there are a lot of libertarians on this blog. Both of which argue against your idea of an in-group dynamics...

  58. Massimo, thanks for engaging with me. I'll look in from time to time. Maybe I am wrong about the in-group idea. All the best.

  59. @jcm

    I actually do think expecting more rationality out of people when it comes to politics is kind of a waste of time. I also think you're overestimating it's importance.

    I'm sure that you, like I do, consider yourself more rational than average. Your assumption is that because you're rational, and you think the government should adopt policies dealing with the extremes of economic inequality, if other people were more rational then they'd want the same thing. On the other hand, I don't think that inequality is an important a measure as people think it is, and that if people were more rational they'd just care about it less. I have no idea if this is true or not, but that's my point. This has very little to do with rationality, it has to do with a political ideology adopted beforehand and rationalized afterward. If everyone were more rational and informed, they might have more logically consistent responses to surveys, but I doubt you'd see it translate into vastly different economic policies.

  60. You are correct, Banterist. We disagree on the importance of both rationality and equality.

    I also don't have a problem with political ideology, so long as it takes into account the relevant facts (including human sociological & psychological facts). And, over my life time (which includes dabbling in a range of political movements, both "left" and "right"), I've basically come to agree with liberal economist Paul Krugman when he says: "The facts have a liberal bias."

    But that's just stating my position. I lack the time & energy to try to persuade you of it (even if this were the place for such "banter").

  61. Yes, but when you're talking about social sciences it's easy to pick and choose whatever facts one wants to believe to support what they want to believe, without realizing you're doing it.

    And I think rationality is important in your day to day life, but when it comes to politics I'm not empirically convinced that more rationality would necessarily lead to a "better" government, however one would choose to define that. Not that I'm opposed to democracy at all, I just think that the virtues of it have little to do with the voting population being rational.

  62. I'm not conflating. I'm grouping. The modern American liberal is anti-liberal (in the sense of classical liberalism being liberal), as is socialism and Marxism. But they are anti-liberal on a continuum. They are all on the Left, even if American liberalism is far less Leftist than Marxism. Whether it's Keynesianism, Welfare Statism, various socialisms, or Marxism, they are all anti-liberal and thus anti-complexity. And, thus, anti-reality. Some are just more egregiously so is all.

  63. Banterist: It may be tempting for a social scientist to pick & choose facts, but there are various ways to check for selection bias (e.g. peer review), just as there are in the natural sciences. But then the order of study is often more complex and hard-to-predict (e.g. compared with chemistry or physics), so I would agree insofar as it's important to bear epistemic limits in mind.

    On the other hand, if we're talking about well established metrics [e.g. a country's average life expectancy, fertility rate, per-capita GDP, or (back to our topic) wealth & income distributions], then (as far as I know) these facts (or the methods by which they are obtained) are not particularly controversial - even if some political interests find one or more of them inconvenient.

  64. Troy, if something is the definition of anti-reality, that's American-style libertarianism.

  65. Please note that I say "classical liberalism" and not "libertarianism." Not everyone in the libertarian movement is really a classical liberal. Libertarianism is no more ideologically unified than are the Republicans or Democrats. I'm not the one conflating, here. :-) The reason I, at least, am a classical liberal in the Scottish Enlightenment tradition is precisely because I find it to be the world view most consistent with an evolutionary, complex systems/network/process, emergentist understanding of the world. I thus consistently reject creationism and intelligent design at both the level of physics, chemistry, biology, and mind as well as at the social levels, which includes the economy, culture, society, governance, etc. Those who embrace creationism and intelligent design at either of these levels -- religious conservatives for the first, various Leftists for the second (who simply replace God with Man, and then make him the Creator or Intelligent Designer of our social systems) -- are explicitly anti-reality.

  66. Troy, I too believe that my world view - including my politics - is in harmony with human nature - a concept on which I am also informed by the sciences. Yet I have never described myself as a "classical liberal" and I suspect that I have arrived at rather different political positions (probably best described as "social democratic" or "progressive") than you have. Go figure.

  67. Troy,

    economy is certainly a human creation. The use of currency in economic exchanges was intelligently designed by man. Why would you reject concepts of intelligent design when dealing with the economy?

  68. Money was in its origins a "result of human action, but not the execution of any human design", to paraphrase Adam Ferguson. Now, money since then has increasingly become "designed," dissociated form gold and silver, made fiat -- and with that, resulting in inflation, artificially low interest rates, etc. (things that contributed to the current economic crisis).

    The economy, too, is a "result of human action, but not the execution of any human design". This is true of all healthy human social systems.


    I don't deny that value-rankings have something to do with one's politics. We probably rank values differently (I bet that while I rank liberty over equality, that you rank equality over liberty). But I would also argue that there are probably differences in epistemology that lead us to different conclusions. I would be willing to bet that you think people can know far more than I think they can know. More, I take more than just human nature into account, and take network theory, self-organization, emergence, and other theories involved in understanding complex systems (on this I cannot speak regarding your knowledge, what you take into consideration, etc.). All of these taken together lead me to conclude that people shouldn't be allowed to rule each other, because they don't know what is best for others, though they may know what is best for them. It leads me to realize that we fool ourselves when we say we know what this or that regulation will do in any given system at any given time. Which leads me to realize that it is best if people work out among themselves in real time what they should and should not be doing, and reap the benefits and consequences of their actions accordingly. Power should be distributed as widely as possible for this very reason -- and democracy should have restrictions on it precisely because mob rule is just as tyrannical as that of a despot (if you have 2 men and a woman on an island, and the two men vote that the woman has to submit to sex any time they want her to -- the result is democratic, but it's still rape).

  69. Troy, I don't think that I rank equality higher than liberty. I value both - along with justice, happiness, and perhaps a few other relevant concepts.

    Also, when judging different policies or political theories, I think that I take into account everything that I know about the world (which is includes some exposure to the topics that you mentioned). I mentioned the study of human nature (e.g. as seen through the lenses of political science, economics, sociology, psychology, biology, medicine, history, and philosophy), because I think it is most relevant to the topic at hand.

    The way that my values combine with my knowledge of human nature is probably shaped by personal experience (not to mention innate factors), which might be quite different than yours and which might go a long way towards explaining the difference in our politics.

    On the other hand, Massimo and I seem to agree on most things political, and yet we seem to have rather different backgrounds (e.g. he an Italian-born academic philosopher & biologist and me a US-born web designer & developer). So who knows?

  70. There are a variety of reasons why we wear varying interpretitve lenses. It is important, though, that we try to make sure that they are actually in accordance with scientific knowledge. That having been said, it's hard to say why one may have one interpretation and another either share yours or have a different one. For example, I have essentially the same world view as Frederick Turner. When at UTD working on my Ph.D., I took several classes with him. Turner is a philosopher-poet and son of the anthropolgist Victor Turner. He grew up in Africa and Britain, went to Oxford, etc. He has had a very rich life. One day in the second class I had with him, he asked everyone to share something about their background. I shared that I grew up in rural Kentucky, that my father was a coal miner with an 8th grade education, that I had degrees in recombinant gene technology, chemistry, and English. Fred leaned up and looked right at me and said, "How on earth did the two of us come to the same conclusions!" Indeed.

  71. Thanks for sharing that, Troy.

    I have an addendum: As I read this piece in the NYT about economic inequality in the US, it occurred to me that (in)equality (like liberty, justice, and other abstract principles) is (among other things) a way of describing a set of facts about social relations and conditions, and how we use the term depends upon how we interpret those same facts (e.g. morally or aesthetically) when faced with them, or upon whether we even acknowledge those facts or deny them (whether for strong or weak reasons).

    In any case, I suspect that this piece affects me quite differently than it affects you.

  72. I don't understand how mere income inequality is unethical. If a wealthy business owner is wealthier than me, it is because he has engaged in many more economy transactions than I have. Those transactions are all voluntary, and both parties are better off. If I engaged in more such transactions, I would be wealthier. This is basic network theory. The rich become richer, while the poor become poorer relative to the rich, but still richer than they were before. The geometry of network theory is a universal of nature -- it is neither ethical nor unethical. We see the same distributions of wealth to the top percentages in every economy on earth. The only differences are how that money is made. If you steal it, that is unethical. If you get government to create barriers to entry to ensure that only you can make money doing what you do, that is unethical. If you get government to create tax structures that make it more difficult for competitors to ever get started, that is unethical. If you abolish private property and, as a result, concentrate money and power in government, that is unethical. You will get wealth disparities in each of these cases; but only in one of them is wealth created ethically. There is nothing unethical or immoral about having wealth -- it is only in how one gets it. To want the exact thing another has is covetousness; to not want someone to have something because they have more than you is envy. Those are immoral. And all they do is result in different people having all the wealth concentrated with them -- and those people are far more likely to be unethical people.

  73. Troy, I'm not sure what to make of your claim that "we see the same distributions of wealth to the top percentages in every economy." At the very least, it seems to clash with the author's claim (i.e. that of economist Robert H. Frank - see link in my previous comment) that "The share of total income going to the top 1 percent of earners, which stood at 8.9 percent in 1976, rose to 23.5 percent by 2007, but during the same period, the average inflation-adjusted hourly wage declined by more than 7 percent." He's talking only about the US over time. Other advanced countries today (e.g. in Western Europe and Japan) have considerably smaller wealth & income differentials.

    But that's only one dispute in fact. Frank makes other factual claims regarding the social costs of greater economic inequality, which he claims have no "offsetting benefits." I expect (based on your comments so far) that you will dispute these, as well. If so, then we aren't likely to settle those disputes here.

    But imagine, for argument's sake, that we both accept Frank's claims about the social costs of greater inequality. You might still argue that these costs are morally & ethically neutral (e.g. based on some theory about networks or emergence, etc.) and/or that Frank's suggestion that we "try to do something about it" (presumably, via the tax system) would be a cure that's worse than the disease.

    More to the point, the conversation might show up somewhere on the landscape of reasonable discourse, but I predict (again, based on your comments so far) that your preferred solution(s) to the problem (again, assuming you are willing to acknowledge it as such) will likely qualify for me (and those who think & feel like I do) as a very low peak, and likewise re: my preferred solution(s). That is indeed a kind of limit to these conversations, although they may still yield some fruits.

  74. Regardless of country, the top 20% have about 80% of the wealth (I prefer to use the term "riches" over wealth, since someone can have riches without having created wealth). There may be variations within that 20% -- such as the top 1% having 8.9% at one point, and 23.5% at another -- but the top 20% having 80% of the riches is consistent across cultures (a discovery made by Coase). There is a power law distribution of income, no matter what the economic system. This means that if you want a system where the poorest are very well-off, you have to live with the presence of a large gap between the poor and the wealthy. If you want to narrow the gap, you have to impoverish everyone. The only explanation needed is that this is a feature of all aristocratic networks -- and an economy is necessarily one of these kinds of networks. Power law distributions are found throughout nature -- particularly in networks. There is no getting rid of them. There is only finding the kind of economy that will create more wealth for the poorest, regardless of what the top 20% are making. I want a system where everyone is better off. There is little evidence that forcing people to have more equal incomes creates such a situation. Personally, I would rather live in an economy where my wealth doubles after 10 years, while the top 20% of the population has their wealth increase 10000% than one where my wealth increases 10% over that time period, but the top 20% don't change in wealth. Since the economy is not a zero sum game, others' accumulation of wealth does not affect mine. Certainly it doesn't necessarily affect it in a negative way, and it is more likely that it will affect me in a positive way. Wealth creation is a positive sum game -- meaning if I create wealth, it helps me and others. But there is only one way to create wealth: through free, mutual trade, where each of us benefits from the transaction. That is the only way wealth has ever been created. Thus, wealth cannot be redistributed; it can only be created or destroyed. All that can be redistributed is riches, and in doing so, wealth destroyed. Over the long run, that harms everyone.

  75. Troy, wealth can and is redistributed by most advanced countries - most notably via progressive taxation and social welfare programs. It used to be done more so in the US, and is done so more today elsewhere (e.g. Western Europe). Whether or not they should do so is a moral/value-laden debate, but I would agree that it should be well-informed by relevant facts about the real world.

    Frank (the economist I cite above) provides some of those facts (or claims of such) - in particular those which provide evidence of the social costs of increased inequality (relative to an historical baseline), for which he claims to find no benefits. Now, you seem to argue the very opposite - that increasing inequality has only benefits and no costs, and that redistribution of any kind or degree necessarily increases poverty. Is that a fair reading of your position?

    If so, then, while I don't doubt that some types of economic redistribution harm a society, if it did so in all circumstances, then I would expect to find certain patterns. For example, I would expect to find that the US is better off today economically than it was during its post-WWII period (e.g. 50's-early 70's) or better off today than, say, the Nordic countries or Germany. Suffice it to say: that's not what I find.

    Also, if we broaden our definition of "wealth" to include "well-being" [e.g. as measured by the Human Development Index (HDI), which includes factors like life expectancy and literacy], then I would expect to find a pattern of highly stratified countries topping the list. Here, again, that's not what I find. (Almost the opposite, in fact.)

    Like I said, I am no expert in these matters. But the experts that I read on a regular basis (some of whom admit to being "liberals", in the non-classical sense) paint a very different picture of reality than the one that you seem to work with.

  76. You are mistaking riches for wealth. There is a difference between the two. One could be, say, a multimillionaire from stealing, which would make you rich, but which would not be wealth-creating. Quite the contrary, it would be wealth-destroying.

    An economy can only coordinate actions -- some better than others. The better-coordinated those actions, the more material wealth created. That is all an economy qua economy can do, and all it should be expected to do. No economy can make you more or less healthy -- but it can create conditions that may contribute to better or worse health.

    I don't quite make the claim you say regarding increasing inequality. There are all sorts of reasons for income inequality. One can imagine that there is severe income inequality in North Korea, to pick an extreme example, between the ruling class and everyone else. That is certainly a case where it's not good. More than that, I would argue that in a truly free market, we are much more likely to find less income inequality. The ways in which the U.S. is not a free market contribute to many of the things you point out, including income inequalities. For example, various legal barriers to entry protect already-established companies from startups. This allows large companies to get larger due to lack of competition. In the U.S., too, we have weight and health problems because of sugar and corn subsidies driving down the price on the market for sugar and high fructose corn syrup, making it cheaper for food producers to put these into their foods, making them more attractive to an evolved predeliction for sugar. The result is more obesity and diabetes. Again, the U.S. is dominated by government-run schools (with increasing federal control and influence), so issues of illiteracy can be directly connected to government policies (I could go on and on about the policies, chasing of fads, etc. that contribute to education being so bad in the U.S.). It's certainly anything but a market failure. And it has nothing to do with income distribution.

    When I look at the U.S. in the 50's-70's I don't see a lot of income redistribution. That came about in the aftermath of the Great Society programs. And it is in this aftermath that we see the increases in income disparity. I don't think that's a coincidence.

    We do have to be careful in attributing cause where there may just be correlation. What regulations and barriers to entry and forms of discouraging people to move out of their income bracket do we see arising over the years that may have in fact contributed to these disparities?

    If we take a look at the U.S.

  77. Troy, I don't think that I mistake riches for wealth, but then I'm aware that ideologies tend to have their own jargon. Your definition of "wealth" might not be the same as mine, or I might not value yours so much as you do.

    For that matter, I think GDP is a deeply flawed measure of wealth or standard of living. The HDI (which includes per capita GDP) is more well-rounded, but is not perfect, either. More recently, some economists have tried to account for happiness (following recent trends in psychology and sociology) and ecological sustainability, but there is (as of yet) no broad consensus on these indices, and so GDP still seems to be the standard (at least at the national level).

    That said, I mentioned the post-WWII period because it is considered a "golden age" for the US, an economic boom with higher real GDP growth, high employment, and few financial crises (relative to other periods). It was also the period when Kenysian economic policy was dominant (both in government and in academia) and the top tax rate was more than double what it is today. Teasing out the causal factors behind this prosperity is both difficult and controversial, but at the very least it places certain ideas about how the "free market" works and creates wealth (some of which you seem to harbor) in grave doubt.

    But you have a point about redistribution. Most of this expansionary period was pre-Great Society. When the top tax rate was 91-92% during the Eisenhower Administration, the federal revenue was not invested so much in domestic social-welfare programs as in stimulative spending programs like the Cold War and the Interstate Highways (the largest public works program in US history). This picture doesn't exactly fit the liberal/progressive/social-democratic narrative (to which Western Europe is a better fit), but then it definitely doesn't fit the market fundamentalist narrative, either. But then there are many reasons to doubt that narrative (e.g. see behavioral economics), and I've already invested more time in this thread than I had bargained for.

  78. Well, I have recently been thinking about the differences between wealth and riches -- so the distinction is probably unique with me (for now, I hope). I am with you on GDP, but probably not for the reasons you don't find it compelling. For me the issue involves the fact that GDP masks whether or not there is in fact wealth production. If you have two countries, A and B, and each produces one unit of product X, but A keeps each unit, while B destroys each one at the end of the year, at the end of 5 years, you will see that both A and B have the same GDP, but A will be 5 times wealthier than B.

    Much of the happiness research seems iffy at best to me. And I question the political motivations behind the "ecological sustainability" measures as currently formulated. This is not to say that these things don't matter -- but the first is at best difficult to measure accurately (I'm not entirely sure what it would even mean to say it was or could be), while the second at present has anti-market motivations rather than pro-ecology ones.

    I recently read about the post-WWII boom and the claims about it being a Keynesian model. However, the Keynesians at the time were warning that the U.S. was going to head into another recession because they were in fact pursuing anti-Keynesian policies, such as reducing deficit spending. Certainly there was infrastructure spending, such as the interstate highway system, but it was far from a Keynesian wonderland. The high marginal tax rates were in reality much lower than they were officially(with all the tax deductions you could claim, the real rate was much, much lower). Still, Kennedy has pushed for a much lower top tax rate -- which he got after he was assassinated. The result was an even stronger economy in the 60's. It was in the 70's, where Nixon proclaimed "We are all Keynesians now" that we got stagflation. With Keynesian policies being pursued in the U.S. now, we are likely facing the same prospect.

    Certainly one canot point to any country where free markets exist in any pure sense. And in a world where some people want to have political power over others, it is unlikely we ever will. Yet, when we look at countries whose economies are closest to free market, we see the greatest material wealth. Those farthest away have the least material wealth. This should at least be suggestive.

    Some of the things you bring up have nothing to do with economic or what kind of economy one has. This is a common mistake people make. Greater material wealth can not and has never promised greater happiness, more art, better health, etc. It has only ever promised greater material wealth. The fact that more often than not it also provides these other things in ever-greater abundance is just a bonus.

  79. Troy, a nice example of the problem with GDP.

    Have you heard of happiness economics? I would agree (at this point in time) that it seems a rather unorthodox subdiscipline, but (like my reference to behavioral economics) I assure you that I made no mistake in alluding to it.

    BTW, I don't think either of us can have it both ways with the 1960's, when Kennedy lowered the top tax rate and Johnson enacted the Great Society programs. For ideological reasons, you may approve of the former and I may approve of the latter, but I think we both have to admit that neither seemed to do much harm to the economy (at least not in that decade).

    On a more general note about free markets, I recommend "Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism" by economist Ha Joon Chang. It paints a very different picture of how wealth is created in the real world (or was so historically) than the one you seem to envision. Of course, after reading it, you might still argue that that's not how it should be done. But that's hardly an empirical argument, is it?

  80. PS: Far be it from me to imply that morality (or values or "ought" statements) play no part in economic policy. Recall, e.g., Robert H. Frank's claim that there has always been a strong link between the disciplines of economics and moral philosophy (although perhaps his case is stronger with respect to political economy).

    But not everyone sees it exactly that way, including Paul Krugman, who says that "economics is not a morality play". Well, at least not when describing historical trends, such that, for us lay folk, it's not always obvious whether an economist (e.g. when cited in the popular media) speaks descriptively, prescriptively, or both simultaneously.

    That said, in this thread, I'm trying to be as descriptive/empirical as I know how - even when doing so is unfavorable to my own pet theories (which tend towards left-of-center). But that is the only way that I know how to bridge the political-ideological gap between us and thereby avoid banter.

  81. I am familiar with happiness economics. My point is that I don't believe in it. I don't think the thing they claim to be measuring can be measured. I am sure that people would in many ways be happier in a tribalist setting -- but they are better off in a contemporary capitalist one. Behavioral economics is fine, until people don't apply the insights to the people in government as well. Of course we don't make optimal decisions. No one does. This is why Austrian economics has been a better tradition of economic theory than any other so far. They take the full human being into consideration. Their conclusion: government is even less capable of making good decisions for us. I recommend the chapter "Why the worst get to the top" from Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom."

    The effects of lower taxes take place pretty quickly. The effects of social programs (that were put in place later in the decade) take longer. We see the effects of the Great Society programs not in the 60's but in the 70's and 80's.

    Looking at the entry on Chang, I can predict exactly what he says, because it's predictable coming from a leftist economist taught by a Marxist. Material wealth is created by entrepreneurship and the discovery process of competition. The places that have gained great material wealth have done it that way. Countries that haven't, didn't. I am sure that Chang complains endlessly about the evils done by Western governments to try to force development. I'm not in favor of that. You won't find any classical liberal who is. Using government to force people to accept a system they are not yet ready for because their society has not evolved to that point, with the appropriate institutions, etc., is not going to work (as history has shown it to never work). The classical liberal position is that countries should trade with whomever wants to trade, have no barriers, and force nobody to trade with us if they don't want to. Their institutions are their institutions, and if they want to improve on them to have a better economy and better life, they can emulate those countries which show themselves to be better. Such changes should never be imposed from the outside or from above. Natural, bottom-up evolution and emergence is what should take place.

  82. There has indeed been a connection between economics and ethics. One can look at the language: interest, profit, value, bond, security, trust, good, save, equity, mean, redeem, redemption, forgive, dear, obligation, honor, company, balance, credit, issue, worth, due, duty, thrift, use, will, partner, deed, fair, owe, ought, treasure, sacrafice, risk, fortune, venture, grace. All of these are at work in a free market economy, and all are seen as good by classical liberals. At the same time, Smith pointed out that it's not out of the generosity of the butcher and the baker that we get cheap, easily available food -- but from their wanting to make money, make a profit. By looking out for their own self-interest, they end up looking out for ours as well. So one of the benefits of the free market is that it can in fact turn self-interest to social good. So in that sense, ethics is indeed tied up in economics. A free market creates more goodness and social benefit in society than any other system. But even if it didn't, even if it were neutral, there is a benefit to liberty in and of itself, and more than that, I am convinced that you know better what is best for you and yours than can someone in government, no matter how well-intentioned. I am not concerned with good intentions; I am concerned with results.

    Robin Hanson has a rather silly analogy at his blog, comparing starving people to the sex-starved:

    However, he is on to something, even if he doesn't quite get there. Rather than comparing the sex-starved to starving people, let us rather compare those who have little sex with those who have little money and those who have a lot of sex to those who have a lot of money. (And they are comparible, as they can both be explained by netowrk theory.) Now, in the case of money, we hear all kinds of people advocating for redistributing money from the rich to the poor, but we never hear about redistributing from those who have a lot of sex to those who have little. Why not? Well, the answer should be clear enough: to do so would be rape. Yet we're perfectly fine taking people's property and redistributing that, even though that is just as clearly theft. This seems to be the most obvious objection to redistribution. There are many unethical things we are willing to allow governments to do that we would never dream of doing ourselves. That makes no sense to me. This is essentially Stalin's argument that 1 person murdered is a tragedy, while a million is merely a statistic. Unethical actions by individuals are unethical even if done by a large group of people. So, in that sense too, economics is very much tied up with ethics.

    I have mostly tried to avoid these sorts of arguments for the same reason that Hayek did: he thought that showing one could not accomplish what the left wanted doing what they wanted to do should suffice. I mostly agree with that. But for me, too, it really is ethical as much as anything.

  83. Troy, you've succeeded at tiring me out, so I'll just end with this: I found Ha Joon Chang very persuasive. (You, not so much.)

    All the best.

  84. Sorry to hear that. Often people do choose ideology over reason.

  85. It isn't a question of ideology to accept physical reality. Accepting creationism or intelligent design theory at either the level of physical reality or of social reality is ideological. Accepting that both are examples of self-organizing, evolutionary processes is simply accepting reality as it is. Thinking you can know what affect you will have by implementing this or that policy, or thinking that you can override reality with legislation, is ideology. I think neither. It is irrational to believe that human reason is so powerful that it can overcome the knowledge problems inherent in trying to control complex social systems. So, no, I don't choose ideology over reason. I reject ideology for reality.

  86. PS: I was reminded of this thread as I read this LA Times article by two political scientists, who recently authored a book called "Winner-Take-All Politics: How Washington Made the Rich Richer — and Turned Its Back on the Middle Class". Suffice it to say that I share their thesis that the consequences of legislation (particularly in this case) are generally more predictable than some would have us believe. As they put it:

    "There is a widely held view that rising inequality is somehow beyond politics, a natural occurrence driven by global economic forces. The skew of tax cutting toward the rich gives the lie to this fatalistic perspective. From rules shaping chief executive pay to financial deregulation to, yes, tax policy, a political system tilted toward those at the top has greatly widened the gap between the rich and everyone else."

    In other words, it does not take an expert (let alone a super-human genius) to predict the outcomes of such legislation and policies. It's only a question of whether or not one cares about them and/or desires to see them change.

  87. While I agree with your premise that rational discussions about emotional topics such as politics and ethics should are possible. In fact, I would argue that it should be encouraged because it affects so many downstream processes.

    I think the problem is that without some explicit, structured way of going about coming to agreement, the discussion can just become passion-filled meanders. There's too many things that can be said and given man's fallibility, it's too hard to constrain conversation to relevant matters.

    We simply need a more efficient manner by which to carry on such conversations. Science is supposed to provide this platform but not everyone is agreed on what we should call the scientific method.


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