by Massimo Pigliucci
I have to admit to a profound dislike for former Harvard President and former Obama (and Clinton) advisor Larry Summers. Besides the fact that, at least going by a number of reports of people who have known him, he can only be characterized as a dick, he represents precisely what is wrong with a particularly popular mode of thinking in this country and, increasingly, in the rest of the world.
Lawrence was famously forced to resign as president of Harvard in 2006 because of a no-confidence vote by the faculty (wait, academics still have any say in how universities are run? Who knew) because of a variety of reasons, including his conflict with academic star Cornel West, financial conflict of interests regarding his dealings with economist Andrei Shleifer, and particularly his remarks to the effect that perhaps the scarcity of women in science and engineering is the result of innate intellectual differences (for a critical analysis of that particular episode see Cornelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender and the corresponding Rationally Speaking podcast).
Now I have acquired yet another reason to dislike Summers, while reading Debra Satz’s Why Some Things Should not Be for Sale: The Moral Limits of Markets, which I highly recommend to my libertarian friends, as much as I realize of course that it will be entirely wasted on them. The book is a historical and philosophical analysis of ideas about markets, and makes a very compelling case for why thinking that “the markets will take care of it” where “it” is pretty much anything of interest to human beings is downright idiotic (as well as profoundly unethical).
But I’m not concerned here with Satz’s book per se, as much as with the instance in which she discusses for her purposes, a memo written by Summers when he was chief economist of the World Bank (side note to people who still don’t think we are in a plutocracy: please simply make the effort to track Summers’ career and his influence as an example, or check this short video by one of my favorite philosophers, George Carlin). The memo was intended for internal WB use only, but it caused a public uproar when the, surely not left-wing, magazine The Economist leaked it to the public. Here is an extract from the memo (emphasis mine):
“Just between you and me, shouldn’t the World Bank be encouraging more migration of the dirty industries to the less developed countries? I can think of three reasons:
1. The measurement of the costs of health-impairing pollution depends on the foregone earnings from increased morbidity and mortality. From this point of view a given amount of health-impairing pollution should be done in the country with the lowest cost, which will be the country with the lowest wages. I think the economic logic behind dumping a load of toxic waste in the lowest wage country is impeccable and we should face up to that.
2. The costs of pollution are likely to be non-linear as the initial increments of pollution probably have very low cost ... Only the lamentable facts that so much pollution is generated by non-tradable industries (transport, electrical generation) and that the unit transport costs of solid waste are so high prevent world-welfare enhancing trade in air pollution and waste.
3. The demand for a clean environment for aesthetic and health reasons is likely to have very high income elasticity ... Clearly trade in goods that embody aesthetic pollution concerns could be welfare enhancing.
The problem with the arguments against all of these proposals for more pollution in least developed countries (intrinsic rights to certain goods, social concerns, lack of adequate markets, etc.) could be turned around and used more or less effectively against every Bank proposal for liberalization.”
Now, pause for a minute, go back to the top of the memo, and read it again. I suggest that if you find nothing disturbing about it, your empathic circuitry needs a major overhaul or at the very least a serious tuneup. But it’s interesting to consider why.
As both The Economist (who called the memo “crass”) and Satz herself note, the economic logic of the memo is indeed impeccable. If one’s only considerations are economic in nature, it does make perfect sense for less developed countries to accept (for a — probably low — price) the waste generated by richer countries, for which in turn it makes perfect sense to pay a price to literally get rid of their shit.
And yet, as I mentioned, the leaking of the memo was accompanied by an outcry similar to the one generated by the equally infamous “Ford Pinto memo” back in 1968. Why? Here I actually have a take that is somewhat different from, though complementary to, that of Satz. For her, there are three ethical objections that can be raised to the memo: first, she maintains that there is unequal vulnerability of the parties involved in the bargain. That is, the poor countries are in a position of marked disadvantage and are easy for the rich ones to exploit. Second, the less developed countries likely suffer from what she calls weak agency, since they tend to be run by corrupt governments whose actions are not in the interest of the population at large (whether the latter isn’t also true of American plutocracy is, of course, a matter worth pondering). Third, the bargain is likely to result in an unacceptable degree of harm to a number of individuals (living in the poor countries) who are not going to simultaneously enjoy any of the profits generated from the “exchange.”
I think all these reasons surely hold, but I would go further and talk of precisely the sorts of things Summers himself mentions in the memo, particularly intrinsic rights to certain goods and social concerns. I simply do not buy the fundamentalist (yes, I’m using the term on purpose) libertarian idea that economics is all there is or that should count in pretty much all human transactions and social problems. The hallmark of a just society is precisely that it does consider issues of intrinsic rights — not just to life and property, as the libertarians would have it — but also to health, education, housing and jobs. The whole point of living in a structured society, as opposed to Hobbes’ war of all against all, is so that our lives are not going to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Which means that what Summers dismisses as “social concerns” really ought to be central to the way we structure our societies. Economic systems ought to be the servants of human flourishing, not its masters.
The only serious question here is what was someone like Summers doing in both the Clinton and Obama administrations? The answer is that this (and plenty of other inconvenient or disturbing facts, depending on your political persuasion) clearly shows that both Clinton and Obama were moderate centrists, certainly not the “socialists” and “radicals” that Republican-generated nonsense would have them be. By the way, did you notice Summers’ point that if one objected to his memo on ethical grounds one may just as well object to pretty much every policy suggested by the World Bank? Ponder the consequences, then start asking for the closing or radical restructuring of the World Bank.
I recall that the stock libertarian answer here goes something like: Yes, markets sometimes fail to address social concerns, but then so do governments.ReplyDelete
The argument invites an empirical response (e.g. by citing correlations between social well-being and policy), which (to my mind, anyway) under most circumstances settles the debate in favor of social democracy over market fundamentalism.
However, what I find telling about Summers' memo (which is nearly 20 years old, btw) is how dismissive it is of social concerns altogether. All I can say to that is: someone like Summers really ought to be held in check by those who possess normal levels of empathy.
Good post, Massimo!ReplyDelete
When Obama brought in Larry Summers and other free-market fundamentalists as his top economic advisors, I found that really disappointing. Why the hell didn't he bring in economists like Stiglitz, Dean Baker, Krugman and others who saw the 2008 crash coming? Why did he opt for people like Summers et al whose policies enabled the crisis? I just find that mind boggling.
I highly recommend the documentary "Inside Job" by the way. The film talks about the myopia and conflicts of interest that plague the economics profession. Summers is featured quite well in it.
The documentary "Inside Job" talks about IMF economist Raghuram Rajan in a 2005 conference where he gave a talk about his paper "Is Financial Development Making the World Riskier?" According to the documentary, the paper, quite prophetically, argued that "incentive structures that generated huge cash bonuses based on short-term profits, but which imposed no penalties for later losses.ReplyDelete
Rajan argued that these incentives encouraged bankers to take risks that might eventually destroy their own firms, or even the entire financial system."
Summers, who attended the talk, called Rajan a "Luddite."
Bringing Summers into your economic advisory team is kind of like bringing Ken Ham into your science education curriculum panel.
With his dirty-industries memo, Summers committed the sin of confusing positive and normative economics, among other infringements. It is one thing to conclude (from analysis of economic models and empirical economic behavior) that dirtier activities are carried out (and possibly move to) poorer areas of the world, and even to conclude that such developments carry an economic benefit to both sides of the transaction; and it is quite another thing to recommend taking active steps to encourage such developments. The latter involves the implicit judgment that those economic models and economic facts and trends are all there is to this issue. Normative recommendations should take also other factors into account.ReplyDelete
Let's take a medical example. The fact that letting some moribund person off the life-support apparatus, or without some costly medical treatment, would save on medical bills is, per se, no reason enough to recommend such drastic step. In fact, such decisions also involve an evaluation of the likely effects of the options (more time alive, probably less quality of life). At some point, the patient or the family would make a decision that is, in essence, a "cost vs benefit" decision: the additional $100,000 would buy just a few more days of life for a probably unconscious patient, and it is thus "not worth it". But if the additional $100,000 would buy some additional days of life but in full consciousness, possibly allowing the patient to say goodbye, or to dispose of some estate, or whatever, the decision could be more difficult. Moreover, if the cost is reduced to $50,000 instead of $100,000, or increased to $500,000, other things being constant, THAT is also likely to influence the decision (and even the recommendation of the physician, the family economist, and the moral philosopher). (I am talking of costs borne by the family, not by some insurance company).
Thus, even in these most moral decisions about the life and death of a loved one, people engage in cost/benefit analysis of a sort, including both monetary and non monetary costs and benefits. Studying a large number of such cases, one could come to a decision about how people behave in such circumstances, and even to more detailed results: how is the likelihood of one decision changed by $1000 additional cost, or by one additional day of expected survival, controlling for other factors such as the family's economic capacity to spend, the family issues at stake (such as allowing a daughter to arrive and say goodbye to moribund Dad), and what not.
In the case of the dirty industry, the government would also consider both costs and benefits. Whatever the decision it makes, some cost-benefit assessment is implicit. Some lives endangered by heinous fumes versus some lives saved by increased employment, household income, and tax revenue.
Difficult or even repugnant as it may sound, we make those callous judgments every day, mostly in a minor way. We decide to take that flight, disregarding the risk of a plane crash: the expected benefit, we are implicitly judging, are higher than the expected cost or risk. We decide to let our teenager daughter go to that party, implicitly judging that the benefits involved (that the child has fun, socializes, and fails to hate her parents for not letting her go) are superior to the risks (possible binge drinking, drugs or under-age sex at the party). One can let her go, or ground her for the evening: whatever one does is the result of some cost/benefit analysis, even if costs and benefits are mostly not pecuniary.
I am very far from being a right-wing libertarian: my economic theory roots are closer to Marx than Mises. But whatever values one holds, they are no excuse for rigorous analysis of any question, including those involving risky decisions. And those involve cost/benefit assessment under uncertainty, a typical economic problem.
"I simply do not buy the fundamentalist (yes, I’m using the term on purpose) libertarian idea that economics is all there is or that should count in pretty much all human transactions and social problems. The hallmark of a just society is precisely that it does consider issues of intrinsic rights — not just to life and property, as the libertarians would have it — but also to health, education, housing and jobs. The whole point of living in a structured society, as opposed to Hobbes’ war of all against all, is so that our lives are not going to be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Which means that what Summers dismisses as “social concerns” really ought to be central to the way we structure our societies. Economic systems ought to be the servants of human flourishing, not its masters."ReplyDelete
Well put, my friend.
"The only serious question here is what was someone like Summers doing in both the Clinton and Obama administrations... clearly shows that both Clinton and Obama were moderate centrists"ReplyDelete
Well thats one interpretation. I think that is true for Clinton, but I think that it is as likely that Obama does not insulate himself ideologically as much as our previous president. Perhaps he doesn't mind different perspectives (even if often wrong) as long as there is some value to that perspective. Or perhaps there are other political reasons for doing this, outside of what we are discussing here.
Reading that quote reminds me that we can never answer broad problem from a narrow perspective. Assuming that he is correct from an economics perspective (he may or may not be), the problem he is discussing is a much broader problem with human implications separate from the economics.ReplyDelete
The issue is not Larry Summers' likability. In this blog, it is the philosophical implications of using cost-benefit analysis for decisions touching on not narrowly economic issues.ReplyDelete
What Summers did in that memo was applying standard economic reasoning to a possible decision by developing-country governments to allow polluting industries in their territories. The matter is economic, but affects environmental quality, public health and other matters not obviously reducible to (narrowly defined) economics.
Rational choices (in Economics or other fields) are between actual alternatives. Every choice implies not choosing something else. These other things, forsaken by the choice of A, are the COST of A. Cost is foregone benefits. What is foregone (and what is gained) when one additional polluting factory is installed in a poor country? Summers thinks benefits exceed costs, although we are not privy to his detailed calculations. Perhaps he failed to include some costs, or some benefits, maybe his calculations were otherwise wrong, but the general method of assessment appears to be standard.
This, beware, is not to say that one choice should be normatively RECOMMENDED above the other, except within well-defined bounds (e.g. regarding only financial gain, or only its net effect on mortality).
Leaving aside normative recommendation:
1. Costs and benefits are heterogeneous: air quality, urban noise, health issues, monetary revenue, export earnings, job creation, increased tax revenue (usable for various goals from health care to warfare to corruption}, and so on. To compare heterogeneous costs with heterogeneous benefits, a common denominator is needed. In most economic applications, a MONETARY value is attached to each element, but that is not the only way. One may, e.g., measure everything in terms of additional years of healthy life for the country's population, or increased feelings of happiness among people as measured in (increasingly popular) happiness surveys. However, the choice of measurement unit is to be considered.
2. Whatever the measuring rod, comparing costs and benefits implies that benefits "make up for" costs: an additional cost of $1 is "made up" by an additional benefit of $1. But the equivalence is not always easily acceptable; does one additional death from choking in industrial fumes "make up" from one or several additional jobs created, or for one child saved from starvation and disease because her parents have jobs at the new factory? Should one life be "traded" for another? Or one life for several jobs? The choice may look hard, but governments and people make such decisions every day: should the US Federal Govt spend one additional billion in Head Start (new lives) or in Medicare (old lives)? More realistically: which federal program should be deprived on one additional billion?. Should this particular dollar of additional tax revenue or foreign aid, received by the Niger Delta local government, be spent on health care or fighting criminal gangs? Should a surgeon in a battlefield hospital operate on soldier A or soldier B, both bleeding from severe wounds? Which choice is "better"? We face similar choices every day in out lives, and we somehow do (just as governments do) find some balance between opposite goods or evils, heterogeneous as they might be. We may err in our choices, but we decide anyway.
Deciding about letting a dirty industry into our soil is not very different from other decisions made all over the world, every day. So, why should we particularly dislike Larry Summers, and not ourselves in general? And what other choice of decision rule we have if we do not like making decisions in that way?
Hector, I dislike Summers as a human being, because I take the sort of things he says as a reflection of who he is. Of course we always make decisions that involve trade-offs, but those trade-offs are never purely economic, they always involve values and how we prioritize them.ReplyDelete
What I find despicable about Summers and his ilk is that they frame the debate *as if* economics could / should dictate our value choices, instead of simply constrain them.
I have two remarks on your comment:
1. You probably dislike Larry Summers ideas, or fail to agree with them, but you should not conflate the ideas and the human being. As I remarked to you some time ago, ideas do not deserve respect, but harsh scrutiny and criticism. But human beings deserve respect. Even criminals do, and more so a distinguished economist who is probably a honest human being, both in private and public life.
2. Bringing your likes or dislikes here is no use. What interests your readers here, I think, is an opportunity to "speak rationally". So I have tried to proceed in my comments about the implicit philosophical argument underpinning Larry Summers' discussion of dirty-industry investment in the Third World.
3. One important, and more substantive issue upon which I commented before, is that "economic" reasoning usually includes reasoning about "non economic" issues. In fact, standard economic does not discuss orderings of preference, but only the way in which scarce resources may be allocated in order to meet those (unjustified and undiscussed) preferences.
But even if we discuss preferences (as one eminent orthodox Chicago boy, Gary Becker, did in his book "Accounting for tastes"), I am pretty certain that Summers was discussing the welfare of Third World countries' people, and the hard choices they face.
Again, choices are always about forsaking something to favor something else: if you do not like dirty industries going to the Third World, would you have them in the First? Would you dismantle all of them? Have you ever thought what are the costs and benefits of doing so? (Remember that "dirty" is a relative word: the oil-guzzling, CO2 emitting automobile was a much cleaner alternative to horse manure in 1900). I am thus trying to reframe your post, from personal attack on Summers to serious discussion of rational choice for developing countries. That choice is not only about "economics" (whatever narrow definition you have of it): it is about quality of life, enhancing children's chances in life, expanding education, and improving the lot of the poor in the world, within the existing constraints --namely, a capitalist world economy that has evolved along the past half millennium and shows no sign of evaporating soon. The same capitalist economy that along with uncounted injustices has also brought about most of the things we most value: long life expectancy, universal education, scientific knowledge, abolition of servitude and slavery, and political democracy.
I'd put it like this: Even if the rational choice models used by neoliberals were descriptive of reality (which is itself a highly controversial topic), part of the problem is that, in their capacity as political leaders and advisors, neoliberals actually use such models to prescribe reality.ReplyDelete
In the team I work in, 10 of 10 computer programmers are male. And that's pretty typical for the industry. Something is going on.ReplyDelete
There are a number of possible explanations for this, but liberals seek to censor discussion of ANY explanation other than unfair discrimination and unfair stereotyping. This censorship is enforced with vicious ad-hominem attacks of the type that Summers received, even characterized by the very personal attack on him as a human being that is made in this blog entry.
The truth is probably nuanced enough that explanations acceptable to liberals are probably not the whole explanation, and if someone really wants to understand what is going on, some intelligent discussion is needed, and Summers attempted EXACTLY that. You can find his speech here: http://bit.ly/fDxG5c The speech is thoughtful, intelligent, well-thought out, and constructive.
The main thing Summers is guilty of in that speech is of thinking that it was safe for tenured faculty to have an intelligent conversation at Harvard. I am surprised he was so naive -- liberal censorship reigns supreme in academia, which is why we need think tanks.
As for the memo, I think it is very questionable to indict someone personally over a private memo that begins with "Between you and me". This was not a finished policy, not a carefully worded statement meant for public consumption.
Furthermore, since the time the memo surfaced, we have seen a tremendous rise in prosperity and general well-being in China and India, largely through trade with the developed world, part of which was brought about by the competitive edge afforded them by virtue of their willingness to tolerate lower environmental standards. When you're at the EXTREMELY low standard of living these countries were in at the time of the memo, sacrificing environmental quality in return for more money which could be spent on such items as food or medicine was a rational trade off for a people to make.
In Communist China, it was politically correct for painters to always add extra smog over city skylines, because smog signified progress, and progress at any price was welcome in their society. So it is not only libertarians and capitalists who feel that the third world can benefit from lower environmental standards.
So much talk about the fallacy of making "value decisions" on purely materialistic grounds, so little talk about any alternative ground for making them.ReplyDelete
Vague references to "human flourishing" rooted in an ancient cosmology that has been thoroughly refuted are not going to get you there.
Massimo, I think you're too kind to Grover Cleveland Obama, or Herbert Hoover Obama as Krugman calls him. (And, lets not forget him expanding Bush wars, starting new ones of his own, and continuing most of Bush's anti-civil liberties stances.)ReplyDelete
And, where to even start at on Hector?
1. Most conservative-driven CBAs not only fail to, but refuse to, put a $$ value on quality of life issues. Ditto on things such as fossil fuels such as carbon taxes/tax rewards for alternative energy, many conservatives fail/refuse to monetize the whole range of hidden costs.
2. CBAs to some degree have the same assumed "homo rationalis" failing that Fama's efficient markets hypothesis does.
In short, both you and Summers need to read Kahneman, Tversky and Ariely, just like Michael Shermer needs to read them better than he did for his latest book.
Damned if for once I tend to agree with Hector. (But I still don't like him.)ReplyDelete
First of all I completely agree that we live in a plutocracy and likely will for some time. The only real questions there are 1) Was it inevitable given human nature? and 2) How do we get out of it into something better?ReplyDelete
As for these 'intrinsic rights' I will point to another video by your fellow Carlin:
We have no rights
What we do have are terms subject to change for various reasons. Minus any discussion of ephemeral rights if you think that any inherent feeling of empathy or fairness can go toe to toe with greed and apathy, well let's just say I wouldn't give it good odds.
1. The "tremendous progress" in China is largely overstated and includes a yet-unburst real estate bubble that, relative to the size of China's economy is probably at least as bad as ours.
2. Regression to the mean will slow China's growth rate soon enough anyway.
3. Really on "rational tradeoff"? Then why did millions of Chinese peasants (who AREN'T sharing, for the most part, in that "tremendous progress," oppose the Three Gorges Dam?
4. China will also probably, 20 years from now, be regretful for the demographic spiral it will find itself in.
It does have the advantages of democracy, the Anglo half of Anglo-American law and a larger English-speaking base than China. It's got the disadvantages of disorganization, worse infrastructure than China, a birth rate that hasn't been reined in to any great degree, and its own degrees and types of corruption that democracy sometimes exacerbates.
And, speaking of "rational tradeoff," why don't you go to Bhopal, the Union Carbide plant site, and ask some Indians about that?
That was easy ... like shooting fish in a barrel. Of course, per Massimo, such fish often refuse to accept they've been shot.
I concur with Mufi.ReplyDelete
About Mufi's asking whether "the rational choice models used by neoliberals [are] descriptive of reality", and just to clarify: speaking about choosing rationally, and speaking rationally about choices, is not equivalent to adopting the "rational choice" theory or models in its literal implication that people always follow (or worse, that they should follow) the rules of decision prescribed in the axioms of such theory or models. In fact, they do not, as abundantly demonstrated in Experimental Economics. Which, again, is not equivalent to concluding that economic processes are not "rational", or human behavior "irrational", nor is it equivalent to concluding that "rational choice theory" or "rational choice models" are useless. But explaining such nuances would take vastly more space than allowed here.
Well, someone long ago said that in the US there are two political sides: the right, and the extreme right. Everything else is quite marginal here...ReplyDelete
In the team I work in, 10 of 10 computer programmers are male. And that's pretty typical for the industry. Something is going on.
Of course something is going on. Duh. Let's change that sentence a little bit, to something that could have been said by 19th century lalawawa, say:
In the team I work in, 10 of 10 physicians are male. And that's pretty typical for the industry. Something is going on.
Gee, I think women are really uninterested in being doctors, then. Something must be going on.
Now, I myself don't discount, a priori, the possibility that the genders might have intrinsic differences in certain capabilities (besides the obvious biological reproductive ones, of course). After all, our brain formation is influenced by hormones, and different brains might have difference in how well they do some things. Hell, each one of us gets exposed to different substances during life that will have such effects, so why not?
The problem is, specially with such sensitive subjects, that you should be really careful and not say anything before there is actual evidence of anything. Which, if I understand correctly, there isn't (but I might be wrong since it's not my area). Because by speculating on such subjects before having any evidence can have a self-fulfilling prophecy effect, I think. Therefore proving what people already believed.
It's a tough conundrum to solve, granted, and a sensitive one too, so any responsible scientist will be careful with what they say. We even got to ask ourselves: should we even attempt to solve such questions, given the associated consequences? What if we get it wrong? (I believe there was a post here on RS about this a while ago, can't remember for sure)
Anyway, back to Summers, yeah. He's despicable.
> ideas do not deserve respect, but harsh scrutiny and criticism. But human beings deserve respect. <
I fail to see why. Assholes are assholes, and I don't think they deserve respect. Besides, despite the title, my post is about arguments, not personal judgments.
> The same capitalist economy that along with uncounted injustices has also brought about most of the things we most value <
It is really annoying in these discussions that so many people don't seem to understand that criticism can be aimed at certain capitalist practices without having to reject capitalism tout court. There is a name for that sort of logical fallacy: false dichotomy, as in "you are either with us or against us." Nobody's arguing a return to feudalism, I am simply pointing out that capitalism needs to be managed in order to maximize human wellbeing and minimize exploitation (you know, like during the robber barons' era).
> In the team I work in, 10 of 10 computer programmers are male. And that's pretty typical for the industry. Something is going on. <
> The speech is thoughtful, intelligent, well-thought out, and constructive. <
Actually, it is ignorant and bigoted. See how differently people can look at the same facts?
> I think it is very questionable to indict someone personally over a private memo that begins with "Between you and me". This was not a finished policy, not a carefully worded statement meant for public consumption. <
That's precisely why it is fair to indict him on that basis. It is that sort of thing that reveals the real thinking and the true character of a person.
> Vague references to "human flourishing" rooted in an ancient cosmology that has been thoroughly refuted are not going to get you there. <
I have no idea what you are talking about. "Ancient cosmology"???
> Was it inevitable given human nature? <
Obviously not, considering that unbridled capitalism has not existed for most of human history, and it is still not the way things are done in many countries. Yes, ultra-capitalists play the "it's human nature" inevitability card, but besides being ridiculous on the face of it, so what? It is human nature to rape and plunder, but we are trying to be a little better than that, no?
1. My principle that people are to be respected, though their ideas are to be subject to harsh criticism, is straight from Bertrand Russell. It works both ways: (a) you should respect people holding absurd beliefs, and their right to hold them and to express them publicly, while reserving the right to criticize them openly (e.g. in matters of religion); (2) you may criticize ideas (such as faith in efficient markets) without necessarily implying that people holding them are despicable. They might be, but that is a separate issue; they have the right to think whatever they want, and to express and foster their ideas in the public scene. So, you can criticize Larry Summers' ideas, or for that matter Rumsfeld's or Obama's or whoever you choose, but with respect towards the person involved. Deeds are different: you can morally condemn a person because of his/her deeds (though in a footnote I should say that your moral condemnation would be conditional to the particular and arbitrary axioms on which your moral commandments are based), but not because of his/her ideas.
2. I concur with your wish to regulate and reform capitalism, but it is not just a matter of wishing. Capitalism, as other economic systems, is not the result of design but (social, historical) evolution. It evolves, often in response to attempts to regulate it, and not always in the direction intended by the regulators.
For instance, today's capitalism is global and supranational, and capital (as well as goods and services, and increasingly labor) can move across borders, while regulating authorities are still mostly national. When regulations in one country become a hindrance, capital may move elsewhere (or stay put, if the actual or expected benefits of staying exceed the costs of complying with local regulations, as is the case in China, for example in the case of Google). Thus national states are bound to compete with each other, willingly or not, in order to attract capital to their shores.
The same has happened before; when business and markets became national in the 18th and 19th centuries, local guilds were unable to impede the free movement of capital, labor and goods across traditional (feudal) borders: unified markets successively emerged in the UK, France, the US, Germany, Italy, Latin American countries and elsewhere, driving many local industries to ruin and others to prosperity.
Now the process is proceeding worldwide. Greek or Spanish people face the need to relinquish cherished social and economic policies, and it is their own Socialist governments that are enacting the demise of such policies, to remain within the international capitalist system. Italy will have to reform its bloated and corrupt economic and political system for the same purpose, and it will be done either by the right-wing (but unwilling) Berlusconi administration, or by a new (perhaps center-left) government; in fact, the political affiliation of the national govt does not matter much: it only serves to gather votes and internal legitimacy, but fundamental policies are dictated (mostly not by coercion) by the international economic system.
Reforming the system at world scale would need supranational authorities with coercive teeth, and these do not as yet exist. They may take many decades, even centuries, to evolve. So, welcome to the league of those wishing to reform the world economic system but unable to do so.
nonsense on stilts, on both counts.
First, words are just as bad (sometimes worse) than deeds, so people's characters can and should be impugned for that. I don't respect a member of the KKK, and I don't respect Summers (though, obviously, for different reasons). Both do have a right to express their views - I never called for censorship, if I recall correctly - but I have a right to *both* criticize their ideas and hold them in contempt as people.
Second, social "evolution" is marked by a fundamental difference with biological evolution: the latter is a stochastic unthinking process, we humans are, allegedly, capable of thinking. So, no, there is nothing inevitable about unbridled capitalism, and we ought to do better.
surprising as it might seem to you, I concur with you. I am fully acquainted with the findings of behavioral and experimental economics (Kahnemann-Tversky, Vernon Smith and many others). I am also familiar with current reinterpretation of economic theory in terms that do not require individual behavior to be fully "rational"; rationality may emerge as an "ecological" result, as Vernon Smith calls it; no less an orthodox economist than Gary Becker proved as far back as 1962 that the same supply and demand curves of neoclassical theory will emerge from the behavior of "irrational" agents, insofar as they have a budget constraint (which they necessarily have, because economics is about scarce resources). Nash equilibria are not necessarily the "best" outcome: all participants (e.g. in a Prisoner Dilemma) might be better off if they had prior perfect information, a requirement of neoclassical choice theory: the "game" evolves towards a point that is not the optimum but the best they could expect. These interpretations are becoming the mainstream ones in fact (more on this in some other occasion).
Thus one cannot claim or need to assume that rational choice models ensure that individuals (or markets) will behave in an optimal way (although this may depend on your definition of optimal). But that has nothing to do with the issues in this post: no matter whether markets are optimal or suboptimal, the govt of a poor country should still decide whether adopting the environmental rules of, say, Germany or California, or take a more relaxed look on the matter, and the factors to consider include, of course, the costs and benefits of each alternative, including the non monetary ones. The choice may be made rationally or irrationally, but it will have consequences, intended or not, that can be predicted, irrespective of the rationality applied to the process of decision making. You can analyze this problem irrespective of your belief in the efficiency or optimality of markets. In fact, modern economic theory advises to do it on the basis that markets are NOT based on "rational" individual behavior in the traditional sense.
I agree that there is nothing inevitable about unbridled capitalism, and also that "we ought to do better". But you may agree that pluri-centennial social and economic systems evolve as a result of a myriad decisions by different people, often with opposing views, and the final outcome is probably not to the liking of anyone. Moreover, the reformation of the system is also not a matter of "wishing". In this particular case, capitalism is by nature a flexible and adaptive arrangement, that can respond to external forcings in often unexpected or non intended ways. And in its current stage of development, it has achieved a worldwide scope that is outside the power of the only coercive institutions existing (national states). You can propose, if you wish, some reforms oriented towards the goal of a World Government, capable of regulating world capitalism, but it will not take hold immediately. Not next week, not next year, and probably not this century at the pace these things usually go. Moreover, it will not take place as a sudden "revolution" but as a gradual "evolution", just as capitalism evolved from the humble "burghers" of medieval cities into today's world of transnational corporations.
Regarding your willingness to attack people based on their ideas, I still do not agree. I still rely on Bertrand Russell's advice in this matter (discuss ideas, don't attack people). But we can leave that for another occasion.
well, I'm not sure where you got the idea that I think things can change overnight. However, the current structure of capitalism is the result of a surprisingly small number of purposeful decisions, for instance the idea of allowing corporations to be treated as individuals, the deregulation of highly volatile financial instruments, and the significant flattening of the tax bracketing system. All of those could be reversed literally at the stroke of a pen, if we had politicians with balls not completely bought by Wall Street. No revolution required.
As for Bertie, he was an influence on me, but sometimes even the great are wrong... ;-)
A stroke of whose pen, Massimo? Is only "balls" that are required? Just "will power"? No "reality check"?ReplyDelete
Feel free to preach your gospel of capitalist reformation. There is no scarcity of such proposals, and plenty have been advanced since the times of Fourier. But I prudently advise you not to be very optimistic about the chances of them being enacted, or (above all) very certain about the actual consequences in case any of your proposals is actually enacted (enacted, let me add, probably in individual countries such as the US, not on a world scale: that would require a little more time).
However, dirty industries exist today. Many of them find it convenient to move to countries with less stringent environmental regulations. What is a Third World government to do in this respect? Adopt the environmental rules of Germany, or more relaxed ones? This choice cannot reasonably wait till capitalism is adequately reformed on a world scale (since, as you say, this will not happen overnight). Governments are in fact making the choice today, and will continue making the choice next week or next year. What should they do?
And for that matter, what should international lending institutions, such as the World Bank, do? Should they curtail funds to countries not adopting Germany's environmental rules, or should they provide funds to investments that would enhance the economy of Third World countries even if the local environmental regulations are a bit more tolerant? That, I think, is the practical question posed by Summers, even if I do not like the way he choose to formulate it in his private (between you and me) memo.
the situation is complicated, but some answers are actually pretty simple. The pen in question is that of the President of the US, who could sign legislation put forth my a more fair and ballsy Congress to bring the US system to what it was until a few years ago, or where most of Europe still is.
As for the World Bank: close it.
Proposals duly noted, Massimo. But do not hold your breath about them being enacted any soon. In the meantime, decisions continue being made by individuals, corporations and governments, all over the world (decisions by the US alone will not reform the world, you know). And still the president of, say, the Central African Republic, or the Republic of Colombia, must take decisions about foreign (or domestic) investment on various industries, and about environmental regulations. Those decisions will be inevitably based on those government's assessment of costs and benefits. Moreover, if their assessment is wrong, they will probably suffer more costs, and gather less benefits, than they expected. Decisions may backfire, because in economics (as in other spheres of life) what other guys will do also matters and is partly uncertain (this being the whole point of Game Theory, the current incarnation of economic decision theory).ReplyDelete
It is surprising, by the by, to find you proposing that the World Bank be closed, a proposal usually associated with right-wing think tanks proposing also the abolition of the UN and most international institutions. The WB has monumental blunders in its patched history, but your proposal will not be welcome by the developing world, where its loans go (using funds obtained in the developed-world capital markets or contributed by the government of rich countries).
Massimo says that Obama "could sign legislation put forth by a more fair and ballsy Congress to bring the US system to what it was until a few years ago, or where most of Europe still is."ReplyDelete
In fact, the opposite is more likely. Europe is now in the process of dismantling social legislation incompatible with mandated equilibria in public finance (in countries such as Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain, collectively known as PIGS), and generally making their economies more like the US, to avoid being mired in non-competitiveness, and even at the cost of prolonging the recession.
This European plan for restoring public finance balance may not work in the end (several economists think), but that is what is actually happening. Political changes will be entailed, though they may be rather paradoxical: disgruntled Spanish socialists may end up enthroning the right-wing Popular Party (this quandary is the main motivation of the "indignated" but programless demonstrators at Puerta del Sol); in Italy, supposedly "neoliberal" Berlusconi, unable to enact the required reforms and mired in corruption, will be probably replaced by a more left-of-centre government (probably also corrupt and ineffective) that would then carry on with the "neoliberal" austerity plan now being discussed in Parliament.
Politics, I am afraid, is no longer as clear cut as it used to be. One reason, I surmise, is that voters are still domestic whereas economic issues are global, thus creating "ideological paradoxes". More on these in a possible future comment.
This is nutritious food for thought, but what would be left for philosophers to do if their beliefs and ideas were not challenged by an ever-evolving reality?
Where on earth do you get this nonsense about unbridled capitalism being a mandated equilibrium? If so, why did it not happen for thousands of years? And don't be too cocky about the US: we may default next week, and then Portugal and Greece will look like sheer paradise in comparison.ReplyDelete
I never said that, Massimo. "Mandated" by the fact that the European monetary union requires countries not to incur in excessive debt. European capitalism is as "bridled" as it gets, but is on its way to become more unbridled (although probably more restrictive in respect to public finance). The requirement that this process continues is quite independent of the political allegiances of parties in power in each individual country, or the composition of the European Parliament, although the political situation in each country may of course influence the way policies are adopted and implemented, and may thus affect also the future development and weight of each individual country within the Union.ReplyDelete
Massimo I take the ground of your objection to Summers be that there is a sort of human flourishing which is the natural good of man, in contradistinction to the materialist belief that there's nothing good but material goods.ReplyDelete
So my question is what is the ground for this idea of human flourishing? How is your view of man any more justified than Summers?
You may not like it but the idea of "human flourishing" is a direct borrowing from Aristotle, and for Aristotle it was grounded in a natural teleology which was grounded in a cosmology. Which turned out to be false.
Summers indeed comes across as a crass materialist, but at least he understands himself. Whereas you, while proclaiming your "rationality", seem to rely on emotional (and ad hominem) attacks that have no apparent rational justification.
Your accusations thus far seem to amount to saying "this man does not share my prejudices".
In my view, human values determine which economic model we choose. That is, economic decisions can only be made based on prior values. If one's sole concern is profit, so be it -- but that is a value that comes before the economic system (a remarkably bad value, but still).
What are "human values", which ones are "good" and which "bad", and how do you know?
BTW I ("Unknown") am the same commenter as LCN above, not sure why it switched to Unknown.ReplyDelete
Unknown / LCN,ReplyDelete
you are kidding right? Of course the notion of flourishing comes from Aristotle (and I do consider myself a virtue ethicist), but there is a large philosophical literature on neo-Aristotelianism that in no way depends on Aristotle's metaphysics. Indeed, moral philosophers might argue that precious little in his Ethics depend on his metaphysics, only on commonsense observations about man happiness.
Speaking of which, an increasingly large literature in the social sciences confirms Aristotle's intuitions about what augments human flourishing, and it has surprisingly little to do with "material" goods.
My attack on Summers are not ad hominem. I think he is ethically wrong and therefore I infer that he is despicable, not the other way around.
As for your question to Michael, you might want to take a look at the large literature on metaethics, not to mention said studies in the social sciences.
it is not for you to "choose an economic model", just as it is not for you to choose the historical epoch in which you are born and live.
Or more precisely, you may "choose a model" at your pleasure for your individual decisions, but that has little to do with the economic system in which you live, and the general rules governing the overall system or the outcomes of your behavior.
You have been born within the capitalist economic system, and in all likelihood will die in it, as your parents and grandparents, and likewise will very likely do your children.
Such system, based on personal juridical freedom and unequal private ownership, works through exchange in markets. It slowly evolved out of the European feudal past, eating away the feudal system from inside. Its protagonists were merchants and tradesmen struggling over centuries to gain security for their property and freedom to buy and sell. Many of them got ruined (or were already destitute to begin with) and so they or their descendants ended up working for others, as wage workers. The system, started in England, slowly expanded to the rest of Europe, the Anglo Saxon offshoots in America and Oceania, and the rest of the world. In the haphazard way in which history happens, it now dominates the world economy, though on its way it suffered enormous changes. It is not static or rigid, but an evolving complex adaptive system covering (now) the whole globe and in a state of rapid and persistent transformation. It is no longer the system in which Venetian or Hanseatic merchants prospered, or the 19th century economy of mass misery and robber barons. In the 20th century it required (and got) a more skilled labor force, and this caused mass incomes and consumption to rise as never before. Now this is happening also in the poverty-stricken periphery of the system, from India to Chile, from China to Mexico.
The system is not homogeneous. It shows (like the earth's climate or fauna) large local variations and particularities, although the overall degree of geographical variance in economic institutions and development nowadays is (I daresay) probably lower than variation in climate or fauna.
It is, besides, not necessary that you "believe in the system" or share its values, or that you support the theoretical ideas underpinning current "orthodox" economic theory. If you happen to be an anarchist, a believer in the virtues of traditional hunting and gathering, or an intellectual survivor of Soviet central planning, it matters very little. Whatever your values of choice, you will have to live, as you currently do, under the general rule of the capitalist system. You do that when you gather your salary at the University, public or private, where you work, a salary coming from taxes, from corporate donations or from student's fees; you move by its rules when you decide to hire a housemaid or to repair your roof, when you make a career move or when you go to the supermarket. Or when you choose a school for your children. You participate in the system in myriad ways, from your health insurance to your pension plan, from the value of your home to the size of your monthly budget, and (most importantly) you cannot do otherwise. There is no possibility of "stepping down" from the economic world around us, as one steps down from a merry-go-round or a rollercoaster if one is not having fun. The whole world is the merry- (or not-so-merry-) go-round, and that can't be helped.
(characters limit reached. To be continued)
As said before, the system changes, and some of its changes are the result of political decisions taken by governments, in which your periodic vote in the US political system plays a very minor role, with an infinitesimal effect that is slightly larger in the US political system, where you vote, than in the European political system or the Saudi Arabian political system, where you do not vote but the US have some influence, but your influence is quite small altogether.ReplyDelete
Moreover, even if you and millions like you someday unite and rally to the cry "Yes, we can" or whatever, your decisions (or rather, those of your elected representatives) will be conditioned in myriad ways by economic and social realities. Even those decisions that are actually taken will trigger reactions in other human agents (US and foreign corporations, Mexicans wanting to enter the US, people in various walks of life across the US, and people elsewhere in the whole wide world), with an overall result that will be an "emergent property" of the millions of decisions involved, possibly resembling the will of nobody.
The naive theory that social life is some kind of "voluntary" arrangement, resulting perhaps from a "social contract" or from a conscious set of decisions based on explicit values, was for a brief time advanced by some Enlightenment thinkers, but the social sciences in general (not only Economics but all of them) have long ago dismissed it (as well as "organismic" views of societies as organisms) and moved on to other forms of theorizing about history and human society.
Again about considering someone "despicable" because of his/her ideas, I have long felt that such inclinations were typical of religious fundamentalists. Perhaps a devout Muslim may find Massimo morally despicable because he allows his wife to go about with her face uncovered, or worse, or because he tolerates blasphemy (and even spreads it) about the Only and Compassionate Almighty God. Likewise will feel a devout Christian in the 14th Century. Countless arguments about heretics and infidels in the Christian and Muslim traditions have depicted them as evil, unworthy to live, to be despised and ostracized (if not killed) for the good of Mankind and the glory of God. I do not say that Massimo would issue a fatwa against Larry Summers, only that he harbours a feeling that Larry is a despicable person just because Massimo happens to hold some philosophical values according to which Larry's values (as inferred by Massimo from some of Larry's writings) are "immoral". I do not feel that thieves and prostitutes are despicable (I always remember an ancient itinerant preacher talking about beams in one's eye and throwing the first stone), even after they have done actual evil or immoral deeds, and much less so I think of people holding academic or political ideas I happen to dissent with. I feel in this I stand "on the shoulders of giants", and will probably remain as I am, proud in my despicable choice not to consider anyone despicable because of their ideas or beliefs.ReplyDelete
Unknown, that's a separate discussion that I need not cover for my original point to stand.ReplyDelete
You know, I'm starting to sympathize with Sam Harris on metaethics ...
@Hector, you wrote:ReplyDelete
"... it is not for you to "choose an economic model", just as it is not for you to choose the historical epoch in which you are born and live."
Of course, but that doesn't mean you have to like the economic model you are born into. You can "choose" the economic model that you would like to see given your values and then advocate for that view.
Of course, Michael, you can have your preferred economic system, according to your values, and speak about its virtues to your heart's content. I do not think, really, that "advocating" for it would have much effect, except for minor changes within the same economic system (for instance, you may advocate for some changes in environmental legislation within the existing political and economic system, and have some success, but that would hardly be the case if you advocate for humankind to forsake modern technology and return to Nature). You cannot change an economic system as such, in that way. No one could have achieved a transition from feudalism to capitalism by advocating free markets and the abolition of serfdom in the 12th century.ReplyDelete
More importantly, it should be also noted that values do not emerge and get popular by chance. Values emerge within cultures, and cultures emerge within economic and social systems. Not every value will get the same degree of popularity in a given economic system. The spiritual virtues of cannibalism, for instance, or the great effect that genital mutilation has on preventing women to go their naturally sinful ways. will hardly be popular in New York (even forgetting the fact that both are illegal there). But they may have a large following in certain parts of Africa. NOT being genitally mutilated may be a mark of social disgrace for an Ethiopian or Eritrean girl. It would put her at risk of never marrying, or worse, being regarded as a prostitute.
One key consideration is that the humans are a SOCIAL species. They need others in order to live (and reproduce). Thus it is not only a matter of having one's values, but getting others to follow suit. That is darn difficult in most cases, as many utopian prophets may attest. But in any case I wish you guys good luck.
@Gadfly: China: China currently has >10x the per-capita GDP, adjusted for inflation, that it had in 1990. If you think all of that's a real estate bubble, you're out of your mind.ReplyDelete
OF COURSE somebody objected to the 3 Gorges Dam -- whole cities were flooded and huge populations were displaced. That doesn't establish that the dam was a bad idea, and it far from establishes that China is not better off for development and trade.
India: India has about 3x the per capita GDP it had in 1990, adjusted for inflation. The standard of living there has improved enormously.
Bhopal was over a quarter century ago, right? When there is industry, there are accidents. And what alternative are you advocating -- that the third world not industrialize?
You seem to be in total denial about what's been going on with 2 billion people for the last couple of decades. It's been all over the news.
@Massimo: I'm hardly shocked that someone, somewhere, has written a book defending the politically correct position on gender differences.ReplyDelete
For sake of argument, let's make the ridiculous assumption that the book establishes, with absolute scientific certainty, that there are no innate psychological differences between the genders.
But the book you cite was published years after Summers' 2003 speech. So shouldn't he be forgiven for not having read that book?
@J: You are asserting there is *NO* evidence for innate gender differences. You agree we observe differences, that's evidence. It's not conclusive evidence, but it's more than *NO* evidence.ReplyDelete
The point you make later is that there are some things we shouldn't say unless we're certain, is a very dangerous slippery slope (that you have already slid most of the way down) to censorship.
You feel that social harm could come from people expressing the opinion that gender stereotypes are valid, and that therefore such expression should be censored. Let's take that back a couple of hundred years, what about people claiming there is no God? Souls are at stake. People could go to hell. Even if nobody wound up in hell, people who lose faith in the existence of rewards & punishments in the afterlife could tend to behave immorally. Therefore atheists should be censored.
Pretty much every time there is censorship, the do-gooders behind it claim to be fighting against some bad social outcome.
Furthermore, saying "You shouldn't say something until you're sure" brings one all the way to censorship, since one can't *BECOME* sure unless one is able to speculate and communicate the idea to others, do research, propose experiments. You want to stop the discussion before any of that is allowed to happen.
If you actually read what Summers said (and I posted a link to it), I think it falls far short of warranting personal attacks.
"Obviously not, considering that unbridled capitalism has not existed for most of human history."ReplyDelete
True enough Massimo, but for most of human history our species were hunter-gatherers which we assuredly are not now. Unbridled capitalism simply couldn't have existed previously because the technology which allows it was not in place. Now it is. It is more instructive I think to look at the era after the advent of agriculture during which the concentration of wealth at the top was the standard model and the middle class could be considered an aberration.
Could we be better? Possibly, but it is something of an understatement to say that not all people are inclined to philosophical reflection. Outside the walls of academia you will not find philosophy a common topic of discussion. One thing is certainly true - wishing for a better species will not make it so. You have to work with what you've got. So could we be more rational and empathetic whilst being less destructive and acquisitive? Definitely. Will we be? Well I think that would qualify as an extraordinary claim.
Yes, Hector M! Summers is not "Ayn" Rand Paul with added weight!ReplyDelete
Pres. Obama has won the health fight and now is winning the debt fight. The Republi-cannots can expect big losses in the next election by signing onto full Reaganism, without his cooperative style- under the guise of Ryanism!
As FDR suggested about himself, press Pres. obama to get better economists and- indict Cheney-Shrub and get rid of their anti-civil rights policies completely!
Put succintly the reason modern psychology cannot ground Aristotle's ethics is because modern psychology relies on an understanding of happiness (self-reported or otherwise) which is historically and culturally conditioned.
You will find dramatic differences in what, say, a conservative Muslim and a modern liberal believe to be virtuous. Even when both report being "happier" when they act in accordance with their mutually contradictory ethics.
And Aristotle's ethical science (whose status as a science is grounded in to kalon being eternally true, which is grounded in his cosmology) is sharply thought not unrecognizably different from what we might call 'modern liberal' ethics. Particularly with respect to his view of egalitarianism and compassion.
If your point in invoking 'human flourishing' was only that empirical research indicates
that humans can and should aim for things beyond the material, does that really do anything to refute neoliberal policies?
It seems to me Summers can say "well as long as you cannot demonstrate that any particular view of human flourishing is more valid than another, I might as well stick with the one good that all capitalist countries agree on - wealth."
> Perhaps a devout Muslim may find Massimo morally despicable because he allows his wife to go about with her face uncovered <
Yes, and he would be wrong. People, either you bite the bullet of your implied moral relativism, or you accept that one can rationally say that another person is despicable. Before you answer, please consider your position toward, say, the KKK, or Hitler, or a child rapist.
> I do not say that Massimo would issue a fatwa against Larry Summers, only that he harbours a feeling that Larry is a despicable person just because Massimo happens to hold some philosophical values according to which Larry's values <
Well, thanks for the concession about the fatwa. Summers doesn't "happen" to hold some philosophical values, they are a major component of what he does, and by reflection of what he is. If that's not a sufficient basis to judge someone's character I don't know what is.
> I feel in this I stand "on the shoulders of giants" <
You do know that Newton used that phrase to make fun of his arch-rival, Robert Hooke, who was short, right? Not a good one to quote in a positive sense.
> I'm hardly shocked that someone, somewhere, has written a book defending the politically correct position on gender differences <
My intent was not to shock, but to educate. And you have obviously not read the book, or you would realize that Fine doesn't at all claim that there are no innate differences between genders, only that many of the claims to that effect - including specifically those made by Summers - are based on shaky or flawed science.
> the book you cite was published years after Summers' 2003 speech. So shouldn't he be forgiven for not having read that book? <
No, first because the research cited by Fine had been around, and had been examined by others, long before then. Second because Summers is an economist, what the hell was his business in speculating - as president of a major and influential academic institution - on things about which he demonstrably knew nothing?
> the reason modern psychology cannot ground Aristotle's ethics is because modern psychology relies on an understanding of happiness (self-reported or otherwise) which is historically and culturally conditioned. <
You have probably not read either Aristotle or much in modern cognitive science, likely neither, or you wouldn't make that statement. Luckily, I have a new book coming out at the end of the year that you might want to consider...
> You will find dramatic differences in what, say, a conservative Muslim and a modern liberal believe to be virtuous. <
No shit. See my comment above about moral relativism, and please consider moving to a Muslim country, if you are serious about the arbitrariness of our respective conceptions of human flourishing. Muslim societies are simply built on the wrong ethical perspective, and it's about time that we say so out loud. Unless you like female genital mutilation, oppression of women, lack of free speech, and similar lovely practices.
Unless you like female genital mutilation, oppression of women, lack of free speech, and similar lovely practices.ReplyDelete
Massimo, do the societies whose cultures enforce these practices "like" them? or have they been indoctrinated into believing that they are ethically correct, whether they like them or not?
You and I don't like those practices, but I'm not as confident as you seem to be that our shared preference is true, or that truth is even applicable to a preference (except in the trivial sense: We truly prefer X, whereas they truly prefer Y.).
once again, if you go down that route - which seems popular with a particular sub-crowd here - you are going to embrace moral relativism. I find that many people like that idea until it actually clashes with something that they can really not bring themselves to accept. Once again, ask yourself if what Hitler did is just a matter of taste and culture, and not fundamentally wrong. then work your way to genital mutilation.
Of course when I say "wrong" I don't mean that there is a cosmic ethical law. I simply mean that it doesn't augment human flourishing, however broadly defined.
Even if my values are a product of personal taste and cultural upbringing (not to mention the moral instincts shared by all normal humans), I feel strongly about them, nonetheless - strongly enough to condemn what Hitler did. (They led me to concur with your critique of Summers, btw.)
Speaking of which, if you haven't already checked out this TED lecture by Steven Pinker on the history of violence, I recommend it.
Whatever forces have contributed to the positive historical trend that Pinker illustrates, I endorse them and hope to nurture them further (i.e. even that pisses off some traditional Muslims). Isn't that enough, morally speaking?
mufi, I haven't seen Pinker's talk, but no, simply saying that you profoundly dislike Hitler isn't enough, in my mind. There are objective ways in which what Hitler did was horrible from the point of view of human flourishing. Now, you can ask why should I care about human flourishing? Good point, but we aware of the fact that most of us think of people who don't as psychopaths (an objective neurological conditions...).ReplyDelete
Massimo, the problem is not that I disagree with your use of human flourishing as a criterion for judging moral actions. The problem is that it is apparently either not universally shared or is interpreted so differently across cultures that it's hard to believe that it's universally shared. (And, no, I'm not talking only about psychopathic individuals here.) This, of course, raises doubts about the objectivity of morality.ReplyDelete
Fortunately, morals need not be objective in order to be strongly held - they need only be compelling over time.
mufi, lack of universality is no argument at all about lack of objectivity. Most people don't understand much of what math says, and have the wrong intuitions about probabilities, that doesn't mean there is no truth of the matter to math or probability.ReplyDelete
Math and probabilities are certainly useful to us (and most likely are metaphorical extensions of very basic hereditary arithmetical abilities, such that they are non-arbitrary), but that does not make them objective, in some eternal, transcendent sense. To some degree, at least, they simply work.ReplyDelete
But, when it comes to confronting a neo-Nazi, that's neither here nor there. He is likely quite happy to envision a flourishing humanity that does not include various minority groups. The proper response, IMO, is not to reason with him (e.g. to charge him with objective wronghood) but to simply stop him from realizing his vision of morality.
Massimo, I think you posted another reply to me that went to the wrong thread:ReplyDelete
mufi, sorry, I'm not going to follow you there. You are essentially advocating the position that might makes right. Which means you abdicate any rational discourse in ethics. This isn't a matter of *convincing* Hitler, it is a matter of figuring out if by beating the crap out of him we are doing the right thing or just indulging in arbitrary slaughter. I think the difference is pretty darn clear.
I think there is middle-ground position here, which is an agnostic one. It basically says: I don't know that my belief in the wrongness of Nazism is objective or not (and, truth be told, I have my doubts), but I don't need to know in order to act against him and his ilk.
What's more, I most certainly can and do reason about moral values - but they're my moral values (i.e. the ones that I happen to hold), and since they don't always play nicely together, reason is a useful tool/technique for reconciling them with each other.
That said, you are welcome to take the more confident (or "gnostic") position, if you like. I just don't share it (again, not that that's ever stopped me from exercising moral judgment & reasoning).
mufi, yes, my previous response went on a different thread, apologies. I respect your position, I just think it's too weak. Look, the way I see ethics is analogous to logic/math: it is about deductive reasoning starting from certain premises (except that some of the premises may be empirical in nature). IF we care about human flourishing, understood minimally as the ability of people to live, be as healthy as they can, and pursue their goals, THEN certain things logically followed, including the fact that Hitler was objectively (in this sense) wrong.ReplyDelete
You stated: "IF we care about human flourishing, understood minimally as the ability of people to live, be as healthy as they can, and pursue their goals".
How do you deal with conflicting "human flourish"
such as the classic case where one person's pursuit of their goals conflict with the goals of the many?
that objection always comes up, but it's not a problem. First, I purposefully defined flourishing in a rather minimalist way; second, that's why ethical reasoning becomes interesting and complex, and requires books instead of short answers to a blog post...
First, a correction to myself: I changed "Hitler" to "Nazism" in my last comment, which garbled the sentence a bit, but it looks like you got my meaning anyway.
I know that the agnostic position is weaker.* But, at least in my case, I believe it's the only honest one - not that I'm in the habit of advertising it. If I believe an act is morally wrong, I use the same language as anyone else to condemn it. It's only in conversation with philosophically minded friends that my meta-ethical thoughts come out.
One last thing: I understand your logical condition and agree that certain things follow from it (whereas others do not). But I think it ignores the fact that many people throughout history (not only Hitler) defined "human" in narrower, usually xenophobic, ways - and many folks still do. What it takes to get such folks (now and in the future) to broaden their definition is an empirical question. In the best possible scenario, reason alone might do it, but in other cases, more forceful kinds of persuasion are almost surely required (as in Hitler's case).
Now who you callin' weak? :-)
* Pertinent to your latest post, I suspect that's why some non-believers in God choose the "atheist" label over "agnostic", despite the technical accuracy of the latter (as Bertrand Russell once pointed out).
mufi, right, this is relevant only within metaethics, but I'm beginning to get annoyed at how often the relativism card gets thrown down as if it were self-evident, unproblematic, etc., and this from people who otherwise have no qualms in engaging in moral judgments anyway.ReplyDelete
I do believe your position is honest, but I also think it is weak, as I said, and unnecessarily so. In response to your issue about some people defining "human" in even weaker ways than I do, I believe ethical reasoning still comes into play: would they allow that weakened definition to apply to themselves? Probably not. If so, they would incur into a self-contradiction.
I'm not saying that people like Hitler would be convinced by the sheer force of logic. I'm saying that reflective people better have good reasons clearly spelled out in their mind before they go clabbering other people the world over...
right, this is relevant only within metaethics, but I'm beginning to get annoyed at how often the relativism card gets thrown down as if it were self-evident
I noticed that moral relativism comes in three forms: descriptive, meta-ethical, and normative, and only the last one concerns "how we ought to think about, or behave towards, persons with whom we morally disagree" [source].
The descriptive form strikes me as self-evident (having studied some history and anthropology), the meta-ethical form as debatable (and I think my own position more closely resembles moral skepticism), and the normative form as load of PC crap.
...would they allow that weakened definition to apply to themselves?
I recognize this statement as a variation on the Golden Rule (a.k.a. ethic of reciprocity), which does appear to be universal (or nearly so).
Yes, I agree that reciprocity is rationally forceful, although I've come to believe (rather cynically, I'm afraid) that some folks just have to experience the pain of vengeance (which is not necessarily violent - it might just mean some loss of wealth and freedom) before they will believe that the rule applies to them, as well (hence, the importance of an international system of justice).
It's remarkable that what you regard as the absolute objective standard of human flourishing - "the ability of people to live, be as healthy[*] as they can, and pursue their goals", is none other than the ideal of "life, liberty, and the person of happiness" on which we are weaned in the West, and which existed nowhere in the world before the 17th century.
Are you truly not aware that there are groups like say Orthodox Jews versus Italian gangsters that live by very different standards of conduct and are capable by any objective indicators "flourishing"?
Not to mention the aristocratic societies of yore that Aristotle favored.
In fact the crux of your ideal is that there is no telos - there is no natural order of ends, there is only freedom from violent death and material comfort. This is the point of liberty in the modern sense - protection from violence.
Perhaps you have embellished it a little but your standard is the materialist standard of Hobbes as against the ethical standard of Aristotle, for whom, for example, dying honorably in combat (killing other human beings in the process!) is far preferable to dying anonymously of old age in a retirement home.
You take my pointing out these sharp differences in "morality" as an assertion of relativism. This is incorrect. I am pointing out that it is naive and unphilosophical to cite "human flourishing", i.e. the good life, as if this were some readily verifiable scientific fact, let alone common sense.
In fact the whole enterprise of genuine philosophy is to examine as honestly as possible that the are plainly different understandings of justice and goodness and so forth and try to see if there is an underlying non-contradictory meaning.
Modern science is not going to get you there because of its embedded philosophical dogmas. How could modern science ever verify Aristotle's ethics, if they were in fact true, when his ethics is grounded in an unvarying standard of the beautiful and the noble which has no "scientific" meaning - i.e. is not material or otherwise quantifiable.
*If you want to keep it really simply, the whole problem here is that you take what is a "healthy" human being to be obvious, as does modern science, when in fact this is a question that implicates all the Socratic questions.
Very well stated.
Juno, there are many books by former atheists, one of my favorite is: http://goo.gl/2XjufReplyDelete
> you regard as the absolute objective standard of human flourishing ... on which we are weaned in the West, and which existed nowhere in the world before the 17th century. <
As I keep saying, that way of thinking traces back to Aristotle (yes, despite his penchant for aristocratic living), and has parallels in other cultures. You really ought to give him a break and read him seriously.
> Are you truly not aware that there are groups like say Orthodox Jews versus Italian gangsters that live by very different standards of conduct and are capable by any objective indicators "flourishing"? <
I have absolutely no trouble saying that other cultures are not doing it right, and those are perfect examples. And the Italian Mafia, really? Would you like joining them? Or the Orthodox Jews, and then report back to us about how well you are flourishing?
> the crux of your ideal is that there is no telos - there is no natural order of ends, there is only freedom from violent death and material comfort. This is the point of liberty in the modern sense - protection from violence. <
Bullshit, my friend. Of course there is no telos, but what I import from Aristotle is the idea of a general common human nature (yes, yes, with many variants within, of course). That nature make people - if they are not shackled by Orthodox Jewish traditions or members of the Italian Mafia - to pursue far more than just protection from violence.
> I am pointing out that it is naive and unphilosophical to cite "human flourishing", i.e. the good life, as if this were some readily verifiable scientific fact <
Here we go again with one of the readers of this blog who disagrees with me and moves into assault position: now I am philosophically naive, at times I don't understand the theory of evolution. I am well aware that the concept of flourishing is controversial, though not quite as much as you seem to think. You might want to check this: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/ethics-virtue/ But it is, I think, a very viable concept to frame these kinds of discussions.
Oh, and please do remember that this is a blog, not a scholarly journal in ethical philosophy.
> How could modern science ever verify Aristotle's ethics, if they were in fact true, when his ethics is grounded in an unvarying standard of the beautiful and the noble which has no "scientific" meaning <
Did you actually reflect on anything I wrote at all? Who ever said anything about science verifying Aristotle's ethics? I have written several times on RS about how idiotic Sam Harris' idea that science can determine ethics actually is. I said that modern cognitive science - across cultures, by the way (though to be fair, Orthodox Jews and the Mafia were not included in the surveys) - shows that people tend to have similar conceptions of the good life, conceptions that are not far removed from Aristotle's idea of eudaimonia. His ethics *follows* from the idea of eudaimonia, but the latter is empirically verifiable.
It seems as though your position on "human flourishing" is dependent upon biological determinism. You seem to be saying "here's how we are", "here's what we want" greatly because of our shared biological similarities....and therefore that's also what we "should" pursue. How is this any different from any other argument that suggests that our biology seems to have created our "natures" and desires...and therefore we "ought" morally to strive to fulfill those biologically determined natures?
Of course what makes us flourish is (in part) dependent on our biology, and of course one cannot have a moral theory without a theory of human nature. Where else would human nature come from, and where else our desires? But no, that's got nothing to do whatsoever with biological determinism, which is a much stronger thesis that not even Richard Dawkins endorses.ReplyDelete
1. The particular standard of "human flourishing" known as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, particularly understood in the context of the political society that promulgates it, is a deliberate rejection of Aristotle, not a derivation from Aristotle.ReplyDelete
For Aristotle human flourishing is a virtuous life, meaning a life of active excellence, with excellence defined by a natural telos. This means a definite sort of behavior, one which we can generally describe as aristocratic.
The modern standard is freedom and material prosperity. This standard has no telos, beyond a negative one - the natural universal end of life is to avoid death and experience pleasure.
I don't know if you misread me or you are being disingenuous, but I clearly did not argue that any sort of notion of 'human flourishing' is an invention of the 17th century. I said the one that you claim is grounded by modern science is.
2. Your view that Orthodox Jews or mafiosi are simply "not doing it right" seems deeply naive and unworldly to me. So you think liberal rationalists are simply happy as a group whereas Orthodox Jews or mafiosi are simply unhappy? I want to make sure I understand your position here.
Are you aware that these groups think the same thing about the liberal rationalists? Have you any knowledge, firsthand or otherwise, of these groups?
Do you think wrathful Achilles, the great hero and inspiration for generations of Greeks, regarded as a demigod, and essentially the ancient version of a mafia enforcer, was simply "not doing it right"?
Since you are empirically inclined have you considered the suicide and depression rates of a group like the Orthodox Jews versus liberal rationalists or whatever comparable group you can find data for?
But really you don't have to bother responding. If you genuinely think that members of these groups are simply "doing it wrong", and that's that, I don't see any potential profit from this discussion.
(Do you think the same thing of, for example, bellicose Native American tribes? Were they too "doing it wrong"?
3. I had a long paragraph here arguing that your invocation of Aristotle is almost meaningless since you take nothing from him that was not universally agreed upon until existentialism. (I.e. Aristotle stands not for the view that there is a human nature, but that there is a very precisely determinable *best* human nature.
However I went over the character limit and the points I would make should be obvious from the other things I have written.
> The particular standard of "human flourishing" known as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, particularly understood in the context of the political society that promulgates it, is a deliberate rejection of Aristotle, not a derivation from Aristotle. <ReplyDelete
Not at all, for the last time, please check the literature on modern virtue ethics, which is populated by liberal philosophers who don't seem to have trouble updating Aristotle accordingly.
> This means a definite sort of behavior, one which we can generally describe as aristocratic. <
No, that is only one, and certainly not the currently accepted, version of virtue ethics. Again, read the literature.
> I clearly did not argue that any sort of notion of 'human flourishing' is an invention of the 17th century. I said the one that you claim is grounded by modern science is. <
I don't make that claim, so I have no idea what you mean at this point.
> So you think liberal rationalists are simply happy as a group whereas Orthodox Jews or mafiosi are simply unhappy? <
No, I said they do not pursue eudaimonia, in the case of the mafiosi because they impose their will by violence; in the case of Orthodox Jews because they suppress women. Not that difficult to figure out, really.
> Since you are empirically inclined have you considered the suicide and depression rates of a group like the Orthodox Jews versus liberal rationalists or whatever comparable group you can find data for? <
I am empirically inclined, but unlike Harris I don't think that science determines ethics, so your point is moot.
> Do you think the same thing of, for example, bellicose Native American tribes? Were they too "doing it wrong"? <
Yup, ad I have no trouble restating what you seem to be resisting: there are better (empirically) and more ethical (philosophically) ways of conducting one's life than others. There is no one better way, but there are a lot of worse ones - including those adopted by both mafia and Orthodox Jews. And you can quote me on that.
> Do you think the same thing of, for example, bellicose Native American tribes? Were they too "doing it wrong"? <
I have no idea what existentialism has to do with anything in this discussion. As for what I take from Aristotle, one last time, read this:
Well I confess after reading the above a few times I cannot figure out what your view of ethics is, or how it is empirically or philosophically grounded.ReplyDelete
It seems to me it has far less to do with Aristotle than your language suggests. (Most recently see your separation of 'eudaimonia' from 'happiness'.)
As much as I would love to see a brief summary of the empirical demonstration of the goodness of the modern liberal way of life, as against the various other ways of life mentioned, I'm guessing I will simply be referred to "the literature". Alas.
I assume that your 6:00pm message was in answer to my post just prior to that that did not get posted?
You are grounding your "human flourishing" moral system on our biology. Our biology endows us with our natures and desires....then you jump the great divide between IS and OUGHT by saying "biology made us desire X Y and Z..... therefore we "OUGHT" to see those as "the good" and that we "ought" to act in ways that bring them about, or bring them about for others. There is no reason to believe that what we desire is what we ought to desire just because it seems somewhat universal for humans to hold that desire.
@Massimo: I listened to your podcast about Cordelia Fine's "Delusions of Gender". As you say, she doesn't claim that innate differences don't exist, but rather rather she argues that what evidence there is is inconclusive.ReplyDelete
If the evidence is inconclusive, isn't it premature to declare the debate closed and say "Anyone who speaks on behalf of a certain side of the debate deserves to be punished with personal attacks on their character."?
You say her book says that "claims [of innate differences] -- including specifically those made by Larry Summers -- are based on shaky or flawed science".
Summers gives 3 explanations for the dearth of women in science and engineering tenured faculty:
1: It is observed that a large fraction of women, including brilliant, highly educated women, drop out of their careers for years to stay at home raising children, while very few men do so. In the technical fields, progress is so rapid that it is very difficult for these women to come sufficiently up to speed when they return to work for them to make it to becoming tenured faculty.
2: The standard deviation of male IQ is higher than that of female IQ, resulting in more males being brilliant enough to become tenured faculty at top universities. He doesn't say whether the higher male standard deviation is genetic or due to socialization, he just says it's observed.
3: Unfair discrimination and stereotyping.
Note that NONE of these 3 points include innate differences in average aptitude between the genders.
I assume that you don't object to explanation 3. So then, why are 1 and 2 so offensive that anyone who raises them deserves to be subjected to personal attacks, and how does Fine's book demonstrate that they "are based on shaky and flawed science"? They both sound pretty reasonable to me.
Also, you say "Summers is an economist, what the hell was his business in speculating - as president of a major and influential academic institution - on things about which he demonstrably knew nothing?"
I totally disagree that expressing points 1 and 2 shows that he "knew nothing". And as for how it was his business, as president of the university, he was probably encountering people advocating various measures, such as the selective lowering of standards, to get more female faculty in engineering and science. It was very much his responsibility to think about the matter, and I feel that had he NOT considered explanations 1 and 2, he wouldn't have been doing his job.
When we observe differences of outcomes between social groups, I have long felt it was a tactic of liberals to ban discussion of ALL explanations other than unfair discrimination and stereotyping, and once they have silenced these other explanations, take differences of outcomes as absolute proof that unfair discrimination and stereotyping is the sole cause.
It seems to me that teleology per se, that is that deliberate human actions are directed toward an end, is a phenomenological truth.
Likewise that humans for the most part order their deliberate behavior toward an end-in-itself, a *perceived* good life, which these days we vaguely call "happiness".
The question is whether there is an absolute rational end, as Aristotle conceived his precisely defined eudaimonia to be, or whether the end is relative to History or culture or what have you.
It is a fact that different cultures, times, and people conceive "happiness" or whatever they call it differently. Aristotle was aware of this too. The problem is whether it is possible to start from these different opinions and reach an absolute truth, an absolute telos.
Aristotle thought one could, and I think the questionable lynchpin of his argument is whether 'to kalon', meaning 'the beautiful' here, is something absolute (though often misjudged), or something relative (to individual, culture, history, etc.).
I think once you appreciate that Aristotle is being phenonenological rather than empirical in the modern sense you can remove the is/ought question. Aristotle is observing that we DO actually direct ourselves toward an end.
So it's like if you stopped your car to ask Aristotle for directions. Aristotle can say you *ought* to turn left up here, because you do *in fact* already want to get to that location. Your being is always already teleological.
So even if where we want at any given point in history is relative rather than rational or absolute, it is a fact that we want to get there.
I think what Massimo is doing is eliding the whole positive ethical doctrine of Aristotle, taking the empty framework of actual decision-making, and then trying to fill it out with empirical research.
The immediate problem I see with that is the empirical research, because of its methodological presuppositions as well as its particular historical milieu, excludes in advance all kinds of possible understandings of eudaimonia, including Aristotle's.
All, this is very interesting, but my next round of responses is going to have to be brief, other things calling during the weekend, apologies.ReplyDelete
> I confess after reading the above a few times I cannot figure out what your view of ethics is <
Can't give you a full fledged account of my (evolving) views on ethics in comments to a post about a specific topic. Still, you will find quite a bit by just searching for "ethics" or "moral" on this blog. In a nutshell, I think our sense of morality has evolutionary origins, and that we then improved on it by reflection and practice (something like what we did with, say, logic and math). I find the general virtue ethics framework convincing, and I do believe that there is a species-wide set of desires that contribute to people's happiness. I think that reason can help us figure out how to improve things and find several paths to eudaimonia (and yes, I do use the word interchangeably with happiness). I think of ethics as a type of reasoning, instrumental to the fulfillment of basic human desires while avoiding trampling on other people's rights to pursue their own.
> As much as I would love to see a brief summary of the empirical demonstration of the goodness of the modern liberal way of life, as against the various other ways of life mentioned, I'm guessing I will simply be referred to "the literature". <
You can start here:
“International happiness” by David G. Blanchflower and Andrew J. Oswald. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper n. 16668, 2011.
“Biology, politics, and the emerging science of human nature” by James H. Fowler and Darren Schreiber. Science, volume 322, pp. 912-914, 2008.
> There is no reason to believe that what we desire is what we ought to desire just because it seems somewhat universal for humans to hold that desire. <
Depends on what you mean by "ought." As much as I disagree with the last para of one of "unknown" (people, please pick better nicknames) posts above, he is right that for Aristotle the ought is close to the is, as in "since you wish to go there, you ought to turn left at the next road."
I see ethics as a type of instrumental reasoning, which is of course bounded by our nature as biological beings - in this very much not just with Aristotle, but with Hume. However, it's not just as simple as "whatever I wish is morally right," we are talking about broad desires to happiness, and we are also talking about borrowing Kant's principle that if pursuing what you want interferes with someone else's right to do the same then you do not have an ethically defensible position (think of the desire of certain people to mutilate certain other people's genitalia, for instance). As I said, too much to explain in a brief series of comments, but hopefully you'll get the gist.
> If the evidence is inconclusive, isn't it premature to declare the debate closed and say "Anyone who speaks on behalf of a certain side of the debate deserves to be punished with personal attacks on their character."? <
I could quote Wittgenstein here: Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent. Particularly if one is the president of the most prestigious academic institution in the country, which means one who is going to influence how people perceive the issue and act on it, with the grave danger of perpetuating discrimination.
> Note that NONE of these 3 points include innate differences in average aptitude between the genders <
The first one is an observation about which nobody disagrees; and the third one is also (or should be) pretty much uncontroversial. The second one, unfortunately, is all too often taken to be evidence of innate differences - though of course IQ can be shaped by environmental ones.
The problem is that Fine shows that the studies concerning point 2 to which Summers was referring are deeply flawed and show no such thing.
> I totally disagree that expressing points 1 and 2 shows that he "knew nothing" <
And you evidence for that is? He quoted flaws literature, so it seems to me reasonable to conclude that he only had a superficial understanding of it.
> And as for how it was his business, as president of the university, he was probably encountering people advocating various measures <
Which is precisely why he ought to have remained silent on the matter, per above.
Reading that Summers memo reminded me of reading "A Modest Proposal" for the first time, before I got the joke.ReplyDelete
Except that here, there's no joke.
>"So it's like if you stopped your car to ask Aristotle for directions. Aristotle can say you *ought* to turn left up here, because you do *in fact* already want to get to that location. Your being is always already teleological."
My question is "Why OUGHT we try to get to that location?" Just because it is a fact that we DO desire to get there is no reason that we OUGHT to desire to get there. It is akin to saying "Our biology determines that we want to get there....so we OUGHT to continue trying to get there".
> "he is right that for Aristotle the ought is close to the is, as in "since you wish to go there, you ought to turn left at the next road."
"Why OUGHT we try to get to "there"? Just because it is a fact that we DO "wish" to get there is no reason that we OUGHT to wish to get there. It is akin to saying "Our biology determines that we "wish" to get there....so we OUGHT to continue trying to get there".
>"Depends on what you mean by "ought."
I certainly do not mean by "ought" the usage that means "it would be instrumental"....or "the means to some end. I mean by "ought" usage that carries with it the force of morality...whether it is the force of duty....the force of "you better or else" or the force of a maxim such as the "greatest good for the greatest number".
Morality is not about the "ought" that is used to say "If you want to remove this screw....you "ought" to use a screwdriver.
It seems that "the pursuit of human happiness or satisfaction, bounded by Kant's deontological morality, is not much different than our most common current moral practices and theory. The difference that you seem to be adding to the equation is that we have a better understanding of our evolved biological and psychological needs and desires.....and that knowledge may improve our choice of "means" to employ in pursuit of our various ends. If the ends are human happiness and satisfaction, then we are simply rejoining the age old argument over whether those are indeed "moral" ends, or just the pursuit of happiness.
@ Hector: The US-ification of large stretches of western Europe is a matter for concern, not delight.ReplyDelete
Lala ... I think it's clear that you didn't want to get my points, not that you don't get them. Just as you don't want to get Massimo's and others' points on societal gender bias. At least I know I'm in good company of the rejected.
Michael ... don't do it with Harris and meta-ethics. Run!
On ethics ... I call myself a "fuzzy realist." I believe that there are semi-absolute standards, but, given human nature, prefer a stance equivalent to a "weak," or non-Gnu, atheism, rather than a "strong" atheism.
I must say the idea of "flourishing" I find too open to utilitarian principles. Who's to say that "flourishing" must be described in terms of one set of standards? Contra Massimo, mafiosi may well believe themselves to be flourishing personally. Morals be damned. It's like the old joke of sobering up a drunken horse thief, and you still have a horse thief on your hands.
Tangentially related: Per Churchland, who in her new book apparantly (like Kaufmann and others) dislikes Rawls and others who are system-building ethicists, there's a good reason there to dislike utilitarianism. It's a great philosophy for one person living as an island, but that's about it.
> It is akin to saying "Our biology determines that we "wish" to get there....so we OUGHT to continue trying to get there". <
Not exactly. What I meant was that one cannot have a sensible ethical theory disjointed by a sensible theory of human nature. Morality is about humans after all.
> Morality is not about the "ought" that is used to say "If you want to remove this screw....you "ought" to use a screwdriver. <
It is also not about alleged universals that are independent of the specific type of social animal that humans are.
> It seems that "the pursuit of human happiness or satisfaction, bounded by Kant's deontological morality, is not much different than our most common current moral practices and theory <
Maybe, though I don't know who's "our" you are referring to. But no, morality isn't *only* about pursuing happiness, it's also about what is fair to other people so that *they* can pursue happiness.
>"But no, morality isn't *only* about pursuing happiness, it's also about what is fair to other people so that *they* can pursue happiness."
That sounds wide open...Does that suggest that I must act in ways that "provide" others with means equal to my own so that they can pursue their happiness? What if "their" happiness takes greater means to gain than mine?
Seems like now we are very far from the topic of the post. The question you pose is interesting and important, but there is a huge literature on justice and fairness. My take tends to be Rawlesian, but there other.ReplyDelete
I am familiar with Rawls. You seem to be saying that you favor an equal distribution of the means necessary for the pursuit of ends associated with happiness, fulfillment, and flourishing, which may differ from individual to individual within some boundaries which we are to understand via our understanding of functional biology...but even though they are somewhat different ideas of what each individual might find more or less fulfilling, that we should distribute equal means to those various ends?
The question is vague: what do you mean by "equal means"? even Rawls doesn't make the argument that wealth (a "mean") should be equally distributed, he just makes an argument for a fair distribution based on the idea that "just desert" is too often over-played in capitalist societies. and he ends up with a model that is close to that of Scandinavian (and, possibly, Japanese) societies. which in turn are the ones that research in social science says experience the highest degree of self-reported happiness, as well as being the countries that rank highest on the UN's index of social development.ReplyDelete
I am addressing your moral theory....not discussing political theory. You seem to want a moral system that allows people to be able to "flourish" and also your morality consists of a sense of "justice as fairness" which translates into to equal opportunity and equal distribution of the means to pursue their own choice of flourishing...but apparently not just any flourishing, but types of flourishing that is reasonable given our understanding of human nature and functional biology....to be determined by "someone" else besides each individual. I'm not questioning what your idea of "fair" distribution..but just that you supplement your idea of free pursuit of flourishing with the idea of distributing the means to accomplish that goal or at least a "fair" shot at it.I'm not clear on how you would limit "flourishing" except for what you say about using our new found knowledge of "somewhat" universal natures,goals, and flourishing. It sounds like "Everyone has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness" as long as your right doesn't interfere with others. But, you qualify that with your willingness to limit others liberties, fruits of their labors, and their means to "their" idea of happiness. Sounds like it would take Hobbes Leviathan to bring that about AND to continue fight back our real human natures.
DJD, I'm afraid I'm running out of ways to explain myself. Yes, there are different ways for human to flourish, but not an arbitrary number of them, and one cannot flourish at the expense of the suffering of others (Aristotle, I don't mean "cannot" in the sense of it being physically impossible). And I have no idea what Hobbes has to do with anything here.ReplyDelete
>"And I have no idea what Hobbes has to do with anything here."
My reference to Hobbes was regarding the massive and all powerful government which would be needed to implement your and Rawl's sense of egalitarian distribution.
Re: "The hallmark of a just society is precisely that it does consider issues of intrinsic rights — not just to life and property, as the libertarians would have it — but also to health, education, housing and jobs."ReplyDelete
A right implies a corresponding duty or obligation. So, if x has a moral right to housing, then y is morally obliged to provide the housing. This obligation entails that that the expropriation of y's labor or justly acquired wealth is morally permissible. Besides making an appeal to Rawls' very poor arguments and an indirectly implying that Hobbes's state of nature follows if such 'inherent' rights are not recognized, *you*, Massimo, have yet to provide an argument as to why y is morally obligated to provide for the physical well-being of x.
Very clearly put.Very concise. I also wanted to introduce the idea that above and beyond the difficulties with the "rights" argument and the moral argument being flawed, there is also the question of the consequences of pursuing these "right" and moral imperatives. The consequences would likely be a coercive government that would be a perverse outcome to the egalitarians desires and ideology. Our human natures would chafe and rebel....just as they have in most countries where this ideology has taken hold. But....your point about whose rights will be sacrificed and whose shall be embraced is extremely well articulated.
> My reference to Hobbes was regarding the massive and all powerful government which would be needed to implement your and Rawl's sense of egalitarian distribution. <
Ah yes, the old libertarian specter of totalitarian socialism. Except that there is no reason to believe it, and quite a bit of empirical evidence to the contrary (most European countries, particularly the norther ones). All it takes is a people who understand that a society is about positive as well as negative rights, or that it is decent to give a crap for those who are disadvantaged.
> A right implies a corresponding duty or obligation. <
Says who, is that a law of nature? Generally speaking I would agree, but it isn't a one-for-one proposition. At any rate, all members of a society have plenty of obligations if they are to be in good standing: not engage in unlawful activity, pay taxes, etc.
> Besides making an appeal to Rawls' very poor arguments <
Ah, you lost me there. If you think Rawls' arguments are poor I don't think there is much more I can say about it that would move you.
> "All it takes is a people who understand that a society is about positive as well as negative rights, OR THAT IT IS DECENT TO GIVE A CRAP FOR THOSE WHO ARE DISADVANTAGED." Ah yes, the old liberal specter that those that disagree with them about the promise of egalitarian ideology just don't care about their fellow man. We are just wrong intellectually....we are evil and uncaring. We who distrust forced egalitarianism
have a more inclusive view of human nature....and believe that liberals have a very limited view of human nature. But,most of us are a caring lot, believe it or not.
that your position is intellectually flawed seems obvious to me. As for libertarians being a caring bunch, perhaps, but I'm an empiricist, and my anecdotal evidence in that department is anything but reassuring.
>"I see ethics as a type of instrumental reasoning"
Is that the same as consequential reasoning?
Re: "Ah, you lost me there. If you think Rawls' arguments are poor I don't think there is much more I can say about it that would move you."
Two things to say here. First, contrary to what you seem to imply, I do not hold Rawls' arguments to be poor *because* I hold to a libertarian political philosophy. Rather, the converse is true. For some time I considered myself a Rawlsian liberal with significant analytical Marxist sympathies (due to my interactions with Jon Elster and the works of G.A. Cohen and John Roemer) but, upon the instigation of a professor while an undergrad, I read Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, Jan Narveson, Hillel Steiner, and various Austrian economists whose arguments obliged me to reject Rawls and accept a libertarian political philosophy.
Second, I could make a similar claim regarding your acceptance of Rawls' arguments ('If you think Rawls' arguments are good, I don't think there is much more I can say about it that would move you') but that would hardly advance the exchange and lead us to make bare assertions.
Re: “A right implies a corresponding duty or obligation.”
If there is moral right which does not entail a corresponding moral obligation, I would very much like to see an argument for that. Also, I do not necessarily reject moral obligations, only that I do not hold that one's inclusion in a given social context entails positive moral obligations (to provide housing, jobs, etc.). Such moral obligations require independent justification.
> Is that the same as consequential reasoning? <
No, consequentialism is a type of ethical reasoning, allied with utilitarianism. I was making the metaethical suggestion that ethics in general (and therefore also, but not only, consequentialism) is instrumental, and in particular that it is the type of reasoning whose object is to increase / lead to human flourishing.
> contrary to what you seem to imply, I do not hold Rawls' arguments to be poor *because* I hold to a libertarian political philosophy <
I don't see where I implied that. I simply inferred that you (and DJD) where arguing from a libertarian perspective, which turned out to be correct.
> I read Robert Nozick, David Gauthier, Jan Narveson, Hillel Steiner, and various Austrian economists whose arguments obliged me to reject Rawls <
Well, that's why I doubt we have anything further to add to this discussion. I came at the exact opposite conclusion after reading the same people, so unless either of us has novel arguments to propose...
Incidentally, I find interesting that libertarians equate economics with ethics, as if the markets were not just one among many economic instruments, but actually a purveyor of moral values.
> If there is moral right which does not entail a corresponding moral obligation, I would very much like to see an argument for that. <
Oh, I don't know, the right to life, perhaps? What sort of obligation would that entail, in your opinion?
> I do not hold that one's inclusion in a given social context entails positive moral obligations (to provide housing, jobs, etc.). Such moral obligations require independent justification. <
Why? *All* rights require justification, because there is no such thing as "natural" rights, so why ask for justification of those you don't like but take for granted those you do like?
Re: 'Oh, I don't know, the right to life, perhaps? What sort of obligation would that entail, in your opinion?'ReplyDelete
The negative moral obligation to refrain from ending or compromising that life, for instance.
Re: 'Why? *All* rights require justification, because there is no such thing as "natural" rights, so why ask for justification of those you don't like but take for granted those you do like?'
Of course all rights require justification, but communitarians are apt to argue that *since* humans are social animals, *therefore* certain moral obligations follow. My point is that the 'therefore' does not follow and instead independent justifications are required.
> The negative moral obligation to refrain from ending or compromising that life, for instance <
So people don't have a right to commit suicide? You lost me there.
> all rights require justification, but communitarians are apt to argue that *since* humans are social animals, *therefore* certain moral obligations follow. <
I don't know which communitarians you are talking about. If you have read Rawls you should know that is *not* the argument he makes. At any rate, what justifies the rights that libertarians defend?
Re: 'So people don't have a right to commit suicide?'
If you and I mutually recognize each other's right to life, then, all else equal, we are morally obliged to refrain from ending the life of the other. (I support the right to suicide on the basis of self-ownership pace Hillel Steiner.)
Re: 'I don't know which communitarians you are talking about.'
Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel, notably (there are more).
Re: 'If you have read Rawls you should know that is *not* the argument he makes.'
I have and, yes, I know he does not advance a communitarian argument. However, I did not mention the abbreviated verson of the communitarian argument in the same context as Rawls. Rawls fails for other reasons.
Re: 'At any rate, what justifies the rights that libertarians defend?'
That depends on the type of libertarianism under consideration. Not all libertarians establish their conclusions on the same foundation. Some are outright contractarians (Jan Narveson), deontological-contractarians (Nozick), consequentialists (David Friedman), utilitarians (Ludwig von Mises), natural law theorists (Murray Rothbard), preference maximizing contractarians (Gauthier), or self-ownership based left-libertarians (Hillel Steiner), to name just a few flavors. I happen to prefer an admixture of the latter two.
P.S. I wonder how you might make sense of a concept of 'intrinsic rights' (your term) within the context of an instrumentalist moral theory? It seems to me you want your proverbial metaphysical cake and to eat it too. (That is, you want to avail yourself of a concept of intrinsic (natural?) rights without the corresponding metaphysical baggage.)
> If you and I mutually recognize each other's right to life, then, all else equal, we are morally obliged to refrain from ending the life of the other. <
Indeed, though as you know that "right" isn't absolute (as hinted by your "all else be equal" clause). Indeed, we find plenty of exceptions throughout society.
> Charles Taylor and Michael Sandel, notably (there are more). <
You might need to be more specific than that, particularly about what it is they are arguing and why it matters to our context. Of course, I'm not bound to agree with everything that any progressive liberal says...
> preference maximizing contractarians (Gauthier), or self-ownership based left-libertarians (Hillel Steiner), to name just a few flavors. I happen to prefer an admixture of the latter two. <
That doesn't answer my question: what justifies the rights that libertarians defend?
> I wonder how you might make sense of a concept of 'intrinsic rights' (your term) within the context of an instrumentalist moral theory? <
I wrote several times here that I think that rights are a human construct. They are "intrinsic" by virtue of the fact that society grants them to an individual in virtue of being human, not because of a special metaphysical status of rights. If the term "intrinsic" is misleading I'm happy not to use it.
btw, I noticed that you haven't commented on my observation that economic systems are not the same as ethical systems, contra what libertarians seem to think. Any thoughts?
Re: 'That doesn't answer my question: what justifies the rights that libertarians defend?'
In a strict sense, arguments justify the rights that various libertarians defend, and the nature and motivation of these arguments differ according to philosophical foundations, which are of course varied. The various libertarian rights (property, liberty, etc.) that I advance and defend are prudentially justified. I take as basic various individual preferences (the preference to continued existence, e.g.) the satisfaction of which, in light of a social context, entails constraints of action, i.e. moral constraints.
In other words, morality is the result of means-end reasoning: recommendations on how to maximize my preferences given the existence of other agents similarly situated and suitably disposed as myself.
In a nut, for me, pace Hobbes, rights are maxims of reason. Similar to Rawls, we can reason to the establishment of rights in the following way: would agents, relevantly similar to ourselves, agree to the establishment of some action or behavior as a general pattern of conduct? E.g., would more or less rational agents consent to a pattern of behavior which has as a consequence that agents may be treated as mere means to an end and not as an end themselves? No. Thus, actions which treat agents as means to an end and not ends themselves are not rationally justified. Thus, such actions are morally unjustified. (This is similar to, but notably different than, Kant's categorical imperative.)
I take it that this line of reasoning leads directly to a left-libertarian political philosophy.
Re: '… economic systems are not the same as ethical systems, contra what libertarians seem to think. Any thoughts?'
In a strict sense, economic systems are the means by which agents allocate scarce means, goods and services, which have alternative uses to the satisfaction of consumer preferences, and ethical systems are rational constraints on the actions of agents with the aim of bringing about preference-maximizing outcomes. So, no, in the strict sense the two are not the same.
But I do contend that only in competitive markets are preference-maximizing outcomes realized, and therefore free markets are morally optimal. So, provided that market transactions are voluntary, there are no direct negative externalities, and there are no background-historical injustices, then market transactions are morally unobjectionable.
P.S. I would like to emphasize that you have yet to provide a reason to believe there exist moral rights which do not entail corresponding moral obligations.
> I take as basic various individual preferences (the preference to continued existence, e.g.) the satisfaction of which, in light of a social context, entails constraints of action, i.e. moral constraints. <
Sure, I take as basic that people want health, education, housing and a job, so there, we get a straightforward liberal philosophy.
> Thus, actions which treat agents as means to an end and not ends themselves are not rationally justified. Thus, such actions are morally unjustified. (This is similar to, but notably different than, Kant's categorical imperative.) <
I fail to see the difference.
> So, provided that market transactions are voluntary, there are no direct negative externalities, and there are no background-historical injustices, then market transactions are morally unobjectionable. <
Shall we put in also the existence of Santa Clause and fairies? That's almost as believable. Besides the fact that even under ideal conditions completely unregulated markets would not actually produce the results you imagine (human agents are not fully rational, they do not have access to perfect information, and there is a tendency to create near-monopolies in the long run, which undermine the workings of the market).
> I would like to emphasize that you have yet to provide a reason to believe there exist moral rights which do not entail corresponding moral obligations. <
As I tried to explain, I don't see rights in isolation, nor that they are an individual (as opposed to a societal) issue. Rights come as a package: whatever rights we decide to allow come with the understanding that everyone has those rights. Not sure what hinges on your one-for-one characterization, which even you had to qualify with the ever tricky (and increasingly disreputable, in philosophy) ceteris paribus clause.
Re: 'Sure, I take as basic that people want health, education, housing and a job, so there, we get a straightforward liberal philosophy.'
You may do that, fine, but, contra Rawls, it seems highly improbable that rational agents in a fair bargaining situation would consent to a system which affords various 'rights' to goods and services and which entails the imposition of obligations on others to provide for those goods and services.
For to effect the implementation of a system of rights to goods and services entails the violation of the rights of other agents because the goods and services to which everyone (apparently) has a right requires a material substructure (property, labor, entrepreneurship) over which others have right claims. Relatedly, and most importantly, such a system of rights would necessarily entail the ownership of others by others. That is, if one has a right to, say, housing, then another has an obligation to provide the housing, which means the latter would be obligated the labor to build the house or the labor or entrepreneurship required to finance the building of the house. Either way, you are ipso facto asserting ownership over her labor or entrepreneurship, which, in essence, is an assertion of ownership over her person.
Re: 'Shall we put in also the existence of Santa Clause and fairies? That's almost as believable. Besides the fact that even under ideal conditions completely unregulated markets would not actually produce the results you imagine (human agents are not fully rational, they do not have access to perfect information, and there is a tendency to create near-monopolies in the long run, which undermine the workings of the market).'
Two things here. First, if by 'unregulated markets' you mean total absence of legal protections of property rights, the protection and adjudication of contracts, legal means by which to address injustices, and agencies which facilitate the access to relevant market information, then I do not advocate for unregulated markets. If by 'unregulated markets' you mean something else, say, an absence of government involvement in production, consumption, exchange patterns of market agents, then, yes, I advocate for unregulated markets.
Second, humans need neither be fully rational nor have access to perfect information in order for competitive markets to operate efficiently. And it is not the case that monopolies form, in the long run, in competitive markets (they may exist for a time in the short run, however). In fact, in the long run monopolies are unsustainable without government-imposed barriers to entry and competition.
Re: 'Rights come as a package: whatever rights we decide to allow come with the understanding that everyone has those rights. Not sure what hinges on your one-for-one characterization, which even you had to qualify with the ever tricky (and increasingly disreputable, in philosophy) ceteris paribus clause.'
The point is a simple one: Moral rights entail moral obligations, either positive or negative obligations. The qualification which I added was nothing more than a clarification.
P.S. As for ceteris paribus clauses in general, I would say almost every statement (including descriptions of laws of nature) are ceteris paribus clauses (cf. Nancy Cartwright). Even in my field, formal logic, dealing with ceteris paribus clauses (cf. conditional logics) are unavoidable.
P.P.S. If you wish, I leave the last word with you.
> contra Rawls, it seems highly improbable that rational agents in a fair bargaining situation would consent to a system which affords various 'rights' to goods and services <
And you are saying this based on what sociological research, exactly? Besides, we are talking ethics, not majority opinion.
> such a system of rights would necessarily entail the ownership of others by others. <
That is why I have a hard time paying serious attention to libertarians, I'm afraid. They come up with things like "taxes are text," or what you say here, that reasonable sharing of resources to make everyone's life better and to build a more fair society is "ownership" of other people.
> If by 'unregulated markets' you mean something else, say, an absence of government involvement in production, consumption, exchange patterns of market agents, then, yes, I advocate for unregulated markets. <
And how exactly would get this without significant government regulation? Because people are naturally honest?
> in the long run monopolies are unsustainable without government-imposed barriers to entry and competition. <
> The point is a simple one: Moral rights entail moral obligations, either positive or negative obligations. The qualification which I added was nothing more than a clarification. <
So is mine, and you keep sidestepping it: rights and obligations don't come in a one-to-one relationship, they are a package deal.
A few clarifying remarks.
Re: 'That is why I have a hard time paying serious attention to libertarians, I'm afraid. They come up with things like "taxes are text,"
I do not believe *all* taxes are theft. I think land taxes and taxes on land resources are justified insofar as they are compensation to others who are prevented from using them.
Re: “... or what you say here, that reasonable sharing of resources to make everyone's life better and to build a more fair society is "ownership" of other people.'
Three things. First, that the sharing of resources is 'reasonable' and that it 'makes everyone's life better' is not at all established. Second, that the redistributive plan which you advocate is 'fair' is not at all established. Third, the imposition of ownership relations of agents over agents follows from postulating the positive rights such as a right to a home, job, etc. If you wish to argue that such ownership relations are justified, you may do that, of course, but they are ownership relations.
Re: 'So is mine, and you keep sidestepping it: rights and obligations don't come in a one-to-one relationship, they are a package deal.'
I have avoided nothing. You have yet to give any reason to believe that a moral right does not entail a corresponding moral obligation. Perhaps you are using a unique definition of 'rights' that I am not aware of? Package deal or not, IF you have a moral claim to a good or service, THEN it follows that someone else is obligated to provide that good or service.
In all honestly, egalitarians such as yourself rarely come to terms with their unexamined assumptions. You have talked much about your moral ideals in this and other posts, but I have yet to see anything which approximates a cogent defense of them.
I honestly find it tiresome to argue with libertarians, but I appreciate your attempt, which is why I ain't giving up just yet.
> I do not believe *all* taxes are theft. <
Many libertarians do. And why do you draw the line the way you do? Why exactly is it wrong to level income taxes?
> that the sharing of resources is 'reasonable' and that it 'makes everyone's life better' is not at all established. <
I actually think there is plenty of empirical evidence that that is the case.
> that the redistributive plan which you advocate is 'fair' is not at all established. <
It is (Sandel, Rawls), you just don't accept it.
> the imposition of ownership relations of agents over agents follows from postulating the positive rights such as a right to a home, job, etc <
I really think it's misleading to call it ownership, it is simply a necessary consequence of living in a societal group as opposed in the savannah on your own.
> Re: 'Evidence?'
> Package deal or not, IF you have a moral claim to a good or service, THEN it follows that someone else is obligated to provide that good or service. <
I thought you were talking of the *same person* having a right and an obligation, hence the misunderstanding. At any rate, again, a matter of (in my opinion misleading) language. Since rights are a societal concept they do not map on individual obligations. Obligations are spread throughout the social group, and allocated in different ways according to different conceptions of fair burden.
I still don't think we are making any advance on Rawls vs. Nozick, by the way...
Re: 'I honestly find it tiresome to argue with libertarians, but I appreciate your attempt, which is why I ain't giving up just yet.'
Coincidentally, I find it tiresome to argue with so-called progressives and humanists (I absolutely refuse to discuss political theory with social conservatives) but I appreciate the exchange, if for no other reason than entertainment value.
Re: 'Many libertarians do. And why do you draw the line the way you do? Why exactly is it wrong to level income taxes?'
A few reasons. First, if an income has been obtained justly, i.e., in voluntary transactions between agents without any prohibiting background injustices (e.g., the agents are not consenting to the transaction only because they were victims of a crime or exploitation), I cannot justify the gainsaying of the income, and thus I must conclude it to be an injustice to redistribute it.
Second, a 'leveling' of incomes to satisfy end-state egalitarian goals would, necessarily, infringe upon the rights to liberty and self-ownership I take to be absolutely fundamental (cf. Nozick's Wilt Chamberlain thought experiment) and which, I would argue, you must take to be fundamental, too.
Finally, you are correct that many libertarians hold that all taxes are theft. I associate myself with left-libertarianism, however, and in this way (and others) I differ with standard libertarians.
If you wish, I could provide you with works by economists which argue that monopolies are unsustainable in the long run in open markets, but of course I could demand the same of you (your assertion was accompanies by an equal lack of evidence), in which case we may find ourselves in a minute debate on the merits of this and that research.
Re: 'I still don't think we are making any advance on Rawls vs. Nozick, by the way...'
Agreed. We may have reached an impasse.
Re: 'I really think it's misleading to call it ownership, it is simply a necessary consequence of living in a societal group as opposed in the savannah on your own.'
I think ownership is an apt description because it places the social relationships in question in dramatic relief. That aside, “... a necessary consequence of living in a societal group as opposed in the savannah on your own” is little more than an rephrase of the argument: “since humans are social animals, therefore certain moral obligations follow.” I certainly hold no brief for the communitarian theology.
In conclusion, I would like to say that, though we apparently have significant political and moral disagreements, insofar as you are committed to open and free inquiry and discourse and hold to a scientific view of the world, I applaud all that you do here at Rationally Speaking and in your publications, podcasts, and talks.
In the past, when someone was told how we should and should not behave....or what behavior should be condemned or praised,and they asked why...the answer was simple. "Because god said so" That answer was both a discussion stopper and tended to prevent any other investigation. Similarly....in the early days of psychology, people would say "The reason he acted in X fashion or desired y, was because he had a "drive" to do so" Again...a discussion stopper which added no knowledge, but tended to get in the way of further investigation. Today, 'moral' is such a word. When someone asks why we should do X rather than Y, the answer is often "Because it is the moral thing to do". The word 'moral' has ceased to answer why we do many things we do, why we ought to do those things, or what explains why we do those things. The word plays the same type of role that the word 'drive' used to. It simply obfuscates. Why not just quit using the words 'moral' 'right' etc. and you could just say that you want the world to be a certain way, because you all people to be able to flourish.....or because you care about everyone....or that you think the world would be a nicer place to live...without throwing out a word that just obfuscates discussion. You need to convince others that your view of a good society in which to live is one that they also would like, if they understood why they would like it.....or that you care very much and that they would be better off if they also cared as much as you do....or convince them that there is some physiological or mental problem they currently have....and if they were treated, they would feel the same way as you do and want the world to be the same as you desire it to be. We need explanations that are grounded in our biology in a way that shows how each of us would feel better, flourish more, want the world to be like you do....if we simply understood our biology in the way you do so that we could address what we need to fix, or what emotions we need to pump-up somehow....why we should care as much as you do about the things or persons that you do....with the 'should' in this sentence meaning we will want to if we understand our biology or fix our biology to be more healthy or at least more like your own. Otherwise...they must be forced to support your vision rather than embracing it. You will certainly never be able to make a rational argument that will convince anyone that does not already share your
biology, your caring, or your hopes and dreams for the future.
> I applaud all that you do here at Rationally Speaking and in your publications, podcasts, and talks. <
"Truth springs from argument amongst friends"...
> Why not just quit using the words 'moral' 'right' etc. and you could just say that you want the world to be a certain way, because you all people to be able to flourish <
For the same reason biologists don't quit using "natural selection" and say instead: those environmental circumstances that favor the transgenerational transmission of a characteristic over another. Cumbersome.
> Otherwise...they must be forced to support your vision rather than embracing it. <
I seriously doubt I ever hinted at forcing anyone to embrace my ideas. As for explaining them, that's why I spend so much energy (including emotional energy) and time writing this blog, my books, and giving talks. Those who are willing to listen will, the rest hopefully will get their message somewhere else.
When an Evolutionary Psychologist says "Humans evolved with "goals", such as "status seeking"...they do not really mean humans are actually actively "seeking "status". The word 'goal' is used differently within that speaking audience than it's normal usage.It is used as a shorthand way of describing the selection. You seem to be saying that you use the word 'moral' in a similar unusual way. I am suggesting that we not use words such as 'moral' or 'drive'....Instead of saying that we should X simply because doing X is 'moral'...why not say "We should do X because ....and then whatever follows "because". Such as "Because it reduces suffering to other people or groups of people....and I feel compassion that causes me to want to help...and I would like you to help also. Rather than "you should do it simply because it is 'moral'. 'Moral' is a block to further discussion, it can be confusing, especially if the speaker is using it as shorthand or an unusual way. It is time to let this word, when used as a reason, go the way of "because god said so" or "because so and so had a "drive" to do so.
I make it a point of not using arguments from authority, so I never say "you should not do X because it is immoral." I usually say something along the lines of "X is immoral because..."
> "I usually say something along the lines of "X is immoral because..."
How does using the word 'immoral' in that sentence add anything to "X harms others" or "X keeps others from flourishing" or "I don't approve of you doing that because it harms others" or any number of statements that are much more clearly understandable and perhaps more accurate. Why is there a need to also add the word 'immoral'?
now you are getting into silly semantics. Immoral simply means that it is harfmul to someone for some reason, a reason to be specified within the sentence "it is immoral because..." if you don't like the term don't use it, it suits me just fine.
> "Immoral simply means that it is harfmul to someone for some reason"
If you were to say "Please don't do X because it is harmful to someone", I dare say that you would not be content unless you added "It is also 'immoral'. And I believe that is true of most people.
You may dare say what you like, but you may note impute me words or deeds I wouldn't commit. That would be immoral of you.ReplyDelete
I will repeat my most recent post in the form of a question, so that I will not impute words to you.
> "Immoral simply means that it is harfmul to someone for some reason"
If you were to say "Please don't do X because it is harmful to someone", would you feel that you would want to add "It is also 'immoral'? Or would you think that would be redundant and unnecessary? I believe most people would add "It is also immoral" if they thought or felt that it was indeed 'immoral'.
I'm really not sure why I'm having such a hard time making myself understood. Immoral means exactly that something has been done to hurt someone without justification. Period. I don't see what else it might mean, and I'm not responsible for how (some, unspecified) other people use the term. What major point hinges on this anyway?
If one fosters development in the third world through trade, this trade must focus on areas in which they have an edge. How can they have an edge? They're underdeveloped, they have less of everything! Pretty much all of their advantages are degrading in some way: cheaper labor, willingness to put up with worse working conditions, or in the case of Summers' memo, a willingness to tolerate lower environmental standards.ReplyDelete
Liberals will condemn any transaction based on these advantages as "exploitation", in other words, they will condemn any interaction with the third world that isn't strictly an act of charity.
And how much charity to the third world are liberals willing to extend? Democrats do not vote for significantly more foreign aid than Republicans do, and privately liberals donate less to charity than conservatives. Most US foreign aid goes to Israel, to bribing Israel's neighbors not to attack her, or to Pakistan. The remainder is a pitiful, insignificant sum, totally insufficient for real development of the billions of people who need it.
The Summers memo may sound bad, but I think it is far worse to sit on the sidelines doing nothing while condemning someone who is at least getting his hands dirty actually grappling with the problem.
Except that doing nothing is not the only alternative to exploitation, you are indulging in a classical false dichotomy, a favorite logical fallacy of conservatives (as in the infamous "you are either with us or against us").
If what I'm saying is a "false dichotomy", then there must be other alternatives. What alternatives, in liberal eyes, are there to exploitation or charity for third world development?
How about developing partnerships, without exploitation? Just browse the web sites of a number of NGOs (or, god forbid, the UN!) to get an idea. Or read Rawls. Or any other political philosopher who is concerned with fairness and justice. Plenty out there, man.ReplyDelete
"How about developing partnerships, without exploitation?"
I seriously have a problem with the whole word "exploitation". It seems to me to be a word that liberals slap on any transaction between two people at different levels of wealth.
If the transaction is voluntary, the disadvantaged party will not participate unless they feel they are better off for the participation.
So when you say "developing partnerships, without exploitation", I'm not sure how that's possible, unless it's a charity transaction. If the wealthier party is participating for purely selfish motives, the poorer party must have some competitive edge over everyone else in the world who might want the deal.
What advantage can a third world country have that is not degrading in some way? How is it possible for a non-charitable transaction to not be labeled "exploitive"?
Here is were you can find decent answers to those questions: http://goo.gl/xy9zzReplyDelete
So suppose I agree (I'm not sure I do) that some things should not be for sale. How can a third world country gain a competitive edge without selling something that "should not be for sale"?ReplyDelete
Did you already read the book? That was fast! The whole problem is that you seem to see everything in terms of "competitive edge," a very impoverished view of human relations.ReplyDelete
Of course I haven't had time to read the whole book, I read the synopsis and one of the reviews.ReplyDelete
But I think you're avoiding the basic question: liberals will tend to label any way that the third would can compete in the economy as "exploitation". You haven't clarified exactly what a non-charity "developing partnership, without exploitation", would be. My thesis is that any way the third world can participate in the world economy will be labeled by third world countries as "exploitation".
The marketplace is based upon self interest. Only people with some competitive edge get to participate. The edge may mean doing the job better, often it is just a willingness to do the job for less than anyone else who can do it as well (which a liberal would usually call "agreeing to be exploited").
When you're looking for someone to transact a deal with, third world countries are at a huge disadvantage. They are often corrupt, so you have to pay numerous bribes to do business, they are politically unstable, your assets in the country could be subject to nationalization. If you land in court, you face a jury of people who are liable to feel you are made of money and who will also be racist against you. So for a selfish actor to choose to do business in the third world, there must be some huge competitive edge offered.
And what it comes down to is, what have you done for the third world that puts you in a position to launch a personal attack on Summers, who was at least trying to promote their wealth? I get the impression that not only are you not doing anything, but you won't approve of anybody doing anything other than a strictly charitable transaction.
On the subject of women in science, you and others here seem to be feel that it will be a great evil if stereotypes that are not true are perpetuated, and liberal censorship and maybe even distortions are justified in trying to prevent that great evil.
But suppose the stereotypes are in fact accurate and there are genetic / hormonal reasons for women to be less drawn to the sciences. Cornelia Fine's book certainly does not eliminate that possibility. Do you feel that it would be evil for liberal censorship and distortions to prevent that truth from coming to light? I get the impression that you and "J" would not see that as an evil outcome.
"The marketplace is based upon self interest. Only people with some competitive edge get to participate."ReplyDelete
Why can't the people that continually rely on that antiquated shibbolith see that all social strategies, including "economical" mix competition with cooperation. Only people with a cooperative edge as well get to participate in a truly economic marketplace.
>"Immoral means exactly that something has been done to hurt someone without justification."
If you said "Joe hurt John without any justification" many would say "that was immoral."
But they would not claim that that was the meaning of the word 'immoral'. You, however, seem to be saying that the meaning of the word 'immoral' is precisely "hurting someone without justification" ...no more and no less. That is a very unusual and idiosyncratic definition of the word.
> Of course I haven't had time to read the whole book, I read the synopsis and one of the reviews. <
Why don't you read it first, then we'll talk on the basis of substantive arguments instead of this sort of arbitrary and utterly unsubstantiated statement:
> liberals will tend to label any way that the third would can compete in the economy as "exploitation". <
As for women and intelligence:
> suppose the stereotypes are in fact accurate and there are genetic / hormonal reasons for women to be less drawn to the sciences. Cornelia Fine's book certainly does not eliminate that possibility. Do you feel that it would be evil for liberal censorship and distortions to prevent that truth from coming to light? I get the impression that you and "J" would not see that as an evil outcome. <
And you get that impression from your telepathic abilities? First, the fact that there is no substantive evidence either way means that people really ought to shut up about it, since that kind of talk has potentially huge social consequences.
Second, even IF it turned that there were (at best, small) differences between groups, that would still says precisely nothing about the aptitude of individuals. Which means that the sensible thing to do would *still* be to shut the hell about it, given the potentially huge social consequences.
Let me recap: it's either not true or inconsequential at the individual level (where it matters). So what is the point of people like Summers to "speculate" about it?
So you agree that you would not see it as an evil outcome if a politically incorrect truth about women and the sciences were suppressed by liberal censorship and distortions.
It is NOT established that the gender differences are "at best, small". The observed differences in numbers between the genders participating in many fields is quite large, and no one has established that this is mostly due to socialization.
Liberals are great at finding excuses to dismiss evidence for politically incorrect conclusions. At best, they create an absence of evidence rather than evidence that differences are "at best, small". http://bit.ly/lyLkKH
And given the absence of evidence they manufacture, liberals do not "shut up about it". They try to intimidate, through personal attacks, anyone who disagrees with them on these topics into silence, and once they are unopposed, start claiming that observed differences have been PROVEN to be due to social injustice.
A host a questionable social policies, such as affirmative action and an all-out assault on meritocracy in general follow. One policy that I find really threatening is all the pressure against standardized testing, because liberals don't like the evidence standardized tests provide about differences between social groups.
When Summers spoke, it was at a conference about the dearth of female tenured faculty in engineering and science. I think liberals were fine with such a conference taking place, but that involves people speaking, not just "shutting up about it". Liberals don't agree to "shut up about it", they just want anyone who disagrees with them to "shut up about it".
"Immoral means exactly that something has been done to hurt someone without justification."ReplyDelete
This sentence is either analytical or synthetic.
If it is analytical, then it is merely a tautology. Adding nothing. It is meaningless....as in that something has been done to hurt someone without justification is "something has been done to hurt someone without justification."
If the sentence is synthetic, then it is a statement about a fact....adding some knowledge or information. If it is of the latter type, then the word 'immoral' has not been clarified.
One can make a circular argument by using the analytic meaning of the sentence, which is meaningless, and could simply be stated without the use of the word 'immoral'. Why would anyone circumscribe the meaning of 'immoral' to such a tautology?
Proposal: Whatever can be said about morality can be said about law. They are both attempts to constrain and promote certain types of behavior.ReplyDelete
Only the means to that behavioral control differs.
> So you agree that you would not see it as an evil outcome if a politically incorrect truth about women and the sciences were suppressed by liberal censorship and distortions. <
You are giving me a good refreshing course in why I really don't like conservatives. No, that is not at all what I agreed to, and if you took your very thick blinders off for a minute you would see it clearly.
> It is NOT established that the gender differences are "at best, small". <
Actually, it is. Even the most rabid supporter of the existence of differences between genders is not denying that there is a huge overlap between the two distributions, with the two means very little apart from each other. Read the literature before commenting, please. Oh right, you don't like to read things that might force you to take said blinders off, as you implicitly admitted above, when I suggested you read the book about morals and markets and you proceeded on commenting after having read an Amazon review of it. Good scholarship, keep it up.
> Whatever can be said about morality can be said about law. They are both attempts to constrain and promote certain types of behavior.
Only the means to that behavioral control differs. <
Not at all. Ideally, the law is supposed to reflect our thinking about morality, and there certainly is no one-on-one mapping between the two (e.g., it is illegal in some countries to J-walk, but nobody would think it immoral).
I meant "They are both attempts to constrain and promote behavior....but not identical behaviors.
And thus they can both be viewed as social tools.
Also....With you seeming to be very familiar with the concept of function , as it is used in biology, I am surprised that you do not apply functional language and understanding to morality and specific morals....asking the value of morals rather than mostly speaking and thinking in terms of What IS moral....or what IS morality.
> "I really don't like conservatives"
I'm not a conservative. I voted for Obama and will probably do so next time. I am just loathe political correctness.
>> "> It is NOT established that the gender differences are "at best, small". <"
> "Actually, it is. Even the most rabid supporter of the existence of differences ..."
You're talking about averages of IQ / aptitude test scores. I see now that that is what you honestly meant when you said the differences were "at best, small".
But Summers wasn't talking about means of aptitude, and neither was I.
It is quite possible that males and females have very different psychologies, potentially leading them to be interested in different kinds of things, which could explain concentrations of one gender or another in professional fields. Are you aware of any source that establishes that this is not the case, beyond a reasonable doubt?
On "wearing blinders", I don't think i have blinders on, but if I did, I, unlike the politically correct, am not trying to impose them on the whole society. If someone expresses a scientific / political opinion I disagree with, I don't try to punish them into silence with personal attacks. It would be a good thing if you extended Larry Summers the same courtesy.
"when I suggested you read the book about morals and markets and you proceeded on commenting after having read an Amazon review of it. Good scholarship, keep it up."
I did spend an hour listening to your Cordelia Fine podcast, and I did buy (from an obscure source and at great expense) your book with the chapter attacking Evo Psych. This reminds me of a blog entry I made a month ago, in response to another situation: http://bit.ly/qM2Isk
See you at the Skeptics dinner tomorrow.
> I'm not a conservative. I voted for Obama and will probably do so next time. I am just loathe political correctness. <
My apologies, I forgot you are a libertarian. Unfortunately, for the present purposes that doesn't improve things very much. This isn't a matter of "political correctness," it's a matter of not making unsubstantiated claims that can easily damage countless women.
> It is quite possible that males and females have very different psychologies, potentially leading them to be interested in different kinds of things, which could explain concentrations of one gender or another in professional fields. <
This is a truism. The question is where do those psychological differences come from? My guess is: a complex, and likely inextricable, tangle of genetic and environmental interactions. The problem is that it doesn't matter: we should still simply let individual women (and men) choose what they want and in no way discourage them from doing so. Comments like those by Summers do discourage women from taking up science and math, and are therefore pernicious.
btw, you may remember that my post had *nothing* to do with this issue. But whatever.
> On "wearing blinders", I don't think i have blinders on, but if I did, I, unlike the politically correct, am not trying to impose them on the whole society. <
There is no way your views aren't going to affect society, one way or the other. It is the libertarian's narrow minded concept of "imposing" that is problematic here, but that's a whole different discussion.
> I did spend an hour listening to your Cordelia Fine podcast, and I did buy (from an obscure source and at great expense) your book with the chapter attacking Evo Psych. <
Thanks, but you could have gotten it directly from Chicago Press. At any rate, and...?
Sounds like you didn't dereference the link. You got mad at me for not buying and reading a whole book and you didn't dereference the link. http://bit.ly/qM2Isk
I did "dereference" the link (interesting word!), and I get your point, still you have not answered my question concerning what you thought of my criticism of evolutionary psychology.
You and I Had an email discussion about it at the time. I think it was a couple of years ago, actually.
I intend to write up my objections on my blog someday and invite you to reply.