Tuesday, June 21, 2011

The man with the hammer is handing out nailing guidelines....

Chris Hayes:

What he'd come to realize, he wrote, was that "it isn't a question of correct theory or incorrect theory, but whether or not the results of the implementation of that theory are right or wrong in a moral sense."
Economics began it's life as moral philosophy. Adam Smith was considered an ethicist. Utilitarianism, which became wed to modern economic theory so thoroughly almost no one questions it any longer (see., e.g., Rawls' "Theory of Justice," which doesn't critique utilitarianism at all, but only seeks to modify its harsher, "Omelas" effects), began life as a moral philosophy. Almost all Western thought, upon the rise of the university, was considered a branch of theology, and theology was always concerned with ethics. It was only after empiricism took precedence over the system of thought (in the Anglo-American realm) that all thought slowly but inexorably became "scientific."

As I've said before, there's a reason existentialism and phenomenology are products of Europe (the "Continent") and give rise to schools of thought (such as modern day philosophy of religion, and many modern theologies) which are disparaged in Anglo-American circles. And there is a reason, which Chris Hayes doesn't quite touch on, why "efficiency" is preferred in economics (at least by the "Chicago school") over equity.

Equity, after all, is a product of the ecclesiastical courts. There is a reason English barristers wear robes and white wigs; it is a tradition. But it is a tradition that began with the Church. The barrister's robes included a pocket in the back, where payment for services rendered was supposed to be placed (without the barrister seeing it or, publicly at least, touching it). Barristers were related to clergy, and clergy were not supposed to be paid directly for their services. Money is the root of all evil, don't you know? But the traditions of equity in the law stem from the ecclesiastical courts, courts one could turn to in England at one time when the civil courts had failed to do justice, usually because of some "technicality." The ecclesiastical courts might be available to a party, if certain conditions could be met; and a greater interest in justice than in the letter of the law (or, more accurately, the demands of the common law) meant the courts of the church could offer relief not available in civil courts. When the church courts were finally abolished, the principles and rules of those courts survived in the civil courts as "equity." Sometimes, you see, the civil courts were too "efficient," and so the church courts had to be "fair." Contrary to what Professor Sanderson says in Chris Hayes post, society does deal with what is "fair" through its institutions, and has done so for centuries. Indeed, if we hadn't, the entire structure of the justice system would have come down centuries ago.

There is, in other words, always a moral sense; and setting it aside in the name of "efficiency" or, better, "measurement," is a fool's game. It is also, in the language of Professor Sanderson, grossly inefficient. Consider the state of the prisons in the United States today as one example: we can measure "justice" by the yardstick of prison time, and that seems to be a most satisfactory measure for many people. No politician ever lost office by arguing for stiffer prison sentences and more jails to house criminals, all of whom are dangerous, else why would we have to lock them up? But is the system efficient, at all? Are we really better off, as a nation, with the highest incarceration rates in the world? It's easily measured, but is it efficient? Shouldn't we consider a system that is more fair, that is more rational, that takes into account something other than number of prisoners and number of years behind bars?

Science is associated with measure, and measure is associated with truth, and the closer science gets to what is measurable, the closer to truth it comes. That is the assumption running about in the United States, anyway. "Hard" sciences have measurable data on their side, and therefore they are more "true" than "soft" sciences, which try to emulate the "hard" ones by getting data they, too, can measure. It helps if the data doesn't seem to need interpretation, of course. Interpretation introduces error, and error is the bugbear of "science." Or, at least, it's supposed to be.

There are still people who reject Thomas Kuhn's work in the philosophy of science, because he calls into question the measurement of the universe, and the reliability of data. But Kuhn points out a salient fact that is all to easily overlooked: all data is a matter of interpretation. Indeed, this was the simple secret of David Hume, the one that drove Kant out of his academic dreams and into philosophical history. Hume divided the world into two kinds of information: that which would be easily empirically verified, such as "This stone is heavy," (or weighs a specific amount, as determined by an agreed upon scale of measure) and "This object is beautiful." The former, he pointed out, was trivial information, of no real value beyond the obvious (perhaps, we could say, useful to engineers, but of no philosophical or greater value). The latter, he said, was merely interpretation, and could not be verified. And so it was equally irrelevant. What were we left with, then? Tending sheep, said Hume. Philosophy, he decided, trying to say anything universal about objects and ideas, was a mug's game.

Which pretty much shuts down science and, in this case, economics, too. If Professor Sanderson were to point out to me that "fair" is an indeterminate concept, I would point out to him that describing a system as "efficient" is really no different from describing it as "beautiful." His "efficiency" is really no more grounded in truth or science, than "fairness" is. Now what?

In truth, of course, we don't insist upon such absolutism, nor do we need to (which, if we stick to the realm of philosophy, is where Kant comes in; but let's leave that alone for now). Sanderson is insisting upon a kind of absolutism in his lectures, at least as Hayes describes them; one slanted to give him the outcome he prefers. When Hayes describes Sanderson's technique as "Socratic," it is precisely the carefully calculated approach of Socrates that Sanderson is following. Socrates was not so interested in discovering Truth as in establishing his philosophical preferences as truth (although more accurately, Socrates was interested in irony. Socratic dialogue, in its logical conclusion, is a snake that not only eats its tail, but swallows everything attached to that tail).

Back, then, to ethics.

Or if the hypothesis were offered us of a world in which Messrs. Fourier's and Bellamy's and Morris's Utopias should all be outdone, and millions kept permanently happy on the one simple condition that a certain lost soul on the far-off edge of things should lead a life of lonely torment, what except a specifical and independent sort of emotion can it be which would make us immediately feel, even though an impulse arose within us to clutch at the happiness so offered, how hideous a thing would be its enjoyment when deliberately accepted as the fruit of such a bargain?
We tend to think of ethics as a matter of individual behavior and individual concern; this is completely wrong. Aristotle's "Ethics," which introduced the word into non-Greek European tongues, was wholly concerned with the individual fitting into the society at large. Aristotle's advice, boiled down to its essence, was to find the happiest, most successful person in your society, and emulate him (it would be "him" for Aristotle). Conform, in other words, to what society expected and rewarded, and happiness (and success!) will spring from that.

It is well to remember Aristotle is the "observer" of the universe, and the prototype for the "scientist" as popularly understood today. He tries to draw his conclusions from what he sees rather than from what memories he recovers, as Plato's Socrates does.

So ethics, for most of European history, was a societal concern. Ethics was not (and still isn't, really) a matter of what was in your heart, but what was in your actions. And your actions took place in a society of humans, so ethics was a matter of how the society functioned, not how you got on with your personal concept of God or good. So when the concept of society began shifting, because of the Industrial Revolution, from property to productivity, from patronage to open markets, the question of how should we then live almost inevitably became an economic question (and it was no coincidence the influential economists in the 18th century were British, or that a Frenchman like Charles Fourier despised them). And so economics began its life as a moral philosophy, where the morality was for the society at large, or at least for the greater good. And, according to Chris Hayes' post, it's still a matter of morality: those who benefit are those who deserve to. "Trade works the same way as technological progress: While it might put some people out of work, in the end, it makes everyone better off." Or, in simpler terms, the greatest good for the greatest number. Losses are inevitable, and regrettable, but this is the great truth of the universe: "in trade, there's an enormous amount of agreement between economists about what constitutes the truth. The disagreements are between economists and everybody else."

Economics explains it all to you, if only you choose to understand. Not only is it ethical, it's scientific and therefore true. But, of course, nothing is that simple, especially ethics:

On the whole, then, we must conclude that no philosophy of ethics is possible in the old‑fashioned absolute sense of the term. Everywhere the ethical philosopher must wait on facts. The thinkers who create the ideals come he knows not whence, their sensibilities are evolved he knows not how; and the question as to which of two conflicting ideals will give the best universe then and there, can be answered by him only through the aid of the experience of other men. I said some time ago, in treating of the `"first" question, that the instuitional moralists deserve credit for keeping most clearly the psychological facts. They do much to spoil this merit on the whole, however, by mixing with it that dogmatic temper which, by absolute distinctions and unconditional "thou shalt nots," changes a growing, elastic, and continuous life into a superstitious system of relics and dead bones. In point of fact, there are no absolute evils, and there are no non‑moral goods; and the highest ethical life--however few may be called to bear its burdens--consists at all times in the breaking of rules which have grown too narrow for the actual case. There is but one unconditional commandment, which is that we should seek incessantly, with fear and trembling, so to vote and to act as to bring about the very largest total universe of good which we can see. Abstract rules indeed can help; but they help the less in proportion as our intuitions are more piercing, and our vocation is the stronger for the moral life. For every real dilemma is in literal strictness a unique situation; and the exact combination of ideals realized and ideals disappointed which each decision creates is always a universe without a precedent, and for which no adequate previous rule exists. The philosopher, then, qua philosopher, is no better able to determine the best universe in the concrete emergency than other men. He sees, indeed, somewhat better than most men what the question always is-‑not a question of this good or that good simply taken, but of the two total universes with which these goods respectively belong. He knows that he must vote always for the richer universe,, for the good which seems most organizable, most fit to enter to complex combinations, most apt to be a member of a more inclusive whole. But which particular universe this is he cannot know for certain in advance; he only knows that if he makes a bad mistake the cries of the wounded will soon inform him of the fact. In all this the philosopher is just like the rest of us non‑philosophers, so far as we are just and sympathetic instinctively, and so far as we are open to the voice of complaint. His function is in fact indistinguishable from that of the best kind of statesman at the present day. His books upon ethics, therefore, so far as they truly touch the moral life, must more and more ally themselves with a literature which is confessedly tentative and suggestive rather than dogmatic‑-I mean with novels and dramas of the deeper sort, with sermons, with books on statecraft and philanthropy and social and economical reform. Treated in this way ethical treatises may be voluminous and luminous as well; but they never can be final, except in their abstractest and vaguest features; and they must more and more abandon the old‑fashioned, clear‑cut, and would‑be "scientific" form. (emphasis added)
Interesting how the economics professor wants to squeeze all the ambiguity out of the world, while "the American James, who seems so mild, so naively gentlemanly....remains, a genuinely radical thinker." As LeGuin points out, it was also James, in the same lecture quoted above, who pointed out that:

All the higher, more penetrating ideals are revolutionary. They present themselves far less in the guise of effects of past experience than in that of probable causes of future experience, factors to which the environment and the lessons it has so far taught us must learn to bend.
Need I point out that the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth were never about the past, or the present, but always about what was coming?


  1. Reminds me of this from Newman, in The Idea of a University:

    Now, observe, Gentlemen, my drift in setting Scripture and the Fathers over against Political Economy. Of course if there is a science of wealth, it must give rules for gaining wealth and disposing of wealth, and can do nothing more; it cannot itself declare that it is a subordinate science, that its end is not the ultimate end of all things, and that its conclusions are only hypothetical, depending on its premisses, and liable to be overruled by a higher teaching. I do not then blame the Political Economist for anything which follows from the very idea of his science, from the very moment that it is recognized as a science. He must of course direct his inquiries towards his end; but then at the same time it must be recollected, that so far he is not practical, but only pursues an abstract study, and is busy himself in establishing logical conclusions from indisputable premisses. Given that wealth is to be sought, this and that is the method of gaining it. This is the extent to which a Political Economist has a right to go; he has no right to determine that wealth is at any rate to be sought, or that it is the way to be virtuous and the price of happiness; I say, this is to pass the bounds of his science, independent of the question whether he be right or wrong in so determining, for he is only concerned with an hypothesis.

  2. Thanks, Rick.

    For some reason my liberal/radical ideas are making me sound more and more conservative.

    But honestly, these things that pass for knowledge I don't understand.....

  3. For some reason my liberal/radical ideas are making me sound more and more conservative.

    Ah, well, that would be because of what's happened to liberalism and its declining relationship to justice and equality. I'm working on a piece about that.

    I have gone back to blogging on my own. So I can say some really controversial things.


    Anthony McCarthy, The Thought Criminal