Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Immanuel Kant Sucks

The sage of Koeningsberg sucks. That, to put it colloquially, is one of Deirdre McCloskey's other main points. She talks at length about how Kant's universalism was a terrible mistake which still corrupts ethical reasoning.

Kant helped create the glorious yet mischievous utopianism of the Enlightenment project; but by fiat, not by reasoning.


Perhaps it was the example of Newton, and the example of the perfect mathematical structure of physics that seemed to point the way forward. Perhaps it was the after-effects of the wars of religion. Perhaps it was a desire to equalize status.

Universal, unparticular reason, he seemed to reason, would apply to a miller as much as to a marquis. Writing in a world of 1785 in which status most oppressively ruled, the egalitarian axiom of Kant, and of Bentham and Smith and Locke and Richard Hooker and John Knox and for that matter St. Thomas of Aquino, St. Augustine of Hippo, and Jesus of Nazareth, was revolutionary stuff. "A man's a man for a' that" is an explosive idea.

And that idea of equal reason was revolutionary and welcome.

But it also progressively destroyed the older ethical tradition. It unbalanced the system of virtues and led to the elevation of enlightenment reason.

The Kantian tradition in ethical philosophy, then, begins with a monomania for Prudence Only-a prudence worthy of Jeremy Bentham and the modern economists. In a not charming sense it is bourgeois. That such intemperate lunacy lies at the heart of the modern and anti-Aristotelian theory of ethics should give pause.

Universal reason gradually lost any sense of particular human lives or actual human dilemmas. It lost any sense of proportion or restraint or balance. In developing something which - at least in theory - could be applicable to intelligent beings on Alpha Centauri, it lost an essential part of what made us human.

"So great has been the influence within contemporary moral philosophy of Hume, Kant and the Utilitarians" (in advocating an egalitarian vision of the universally good person), Stuart Hampshire writes, "that it has been possible to forget that for centuries the warrior and the priest, the landowner and the peasant, the merchant and the craftsman, the musician or poet ... have coexisted in society with sharply distinct dispositions and virtues.... Varied social roles and functions, each with its typical virtues and its particular obligations, have been the normal situation in most societies throughout history.


The problem, says McCloskey, is there is nothing that grounds the Kantian categorical imperative, the univeralizing maxims. Why would a utility-maximizing being want to be universalistic as opposed to self-interested?

As Philippa Foot put it, Kant went wrong in not realizing that "the evaluation of human action depends ... on essential features of specifically human life."" In fact, as I have noted, the Kantian program is self-contradictory, which among Kantians is judged the worst sin.

Univeralism is not necessarily a good grounding for ethics. Instead, it has to be grounded in actual experience and judgement.

Both Kant and Bentham were sweet but notably inexperienced men. As Mill said of Bentham, "He was a boy to the last. Kant and Bentham had seen little of life. Neither of them had been married or had run a business or had carried a spear in the phalanx.


And in any case, she says, we learn ethics not by universal maxims, but by stories.


Guides to ethical life, to repeat, are achieved mainly through story and example. As Robert Hariman puts it: What to do? One typical [modern] response is to look for rules: what would any rational person do in this situation? ... There was another approach familiar to the classical thinkers, however, which was to look to exemplars: how have other individuals managed situations such as this one?


People ultimately want examples, stories, insights, judgments, dialogue: not maxims.

It has been a three-century long dead end. This is something I've been grasping towards since the beginning of this blog.

the long experiment in ethics of emulating Descartes and Newton, with their mathematical axioms and rigid proofs, has failed. We neo-Aristotelians want to try instead to emulate Darwin, Mayr, and Gould, with their biological classifications and their stories.


To be honest, I'd always read Kant as in essence about limitations on reasoning - although that is more the metaphysics than the ethics. I remember having to study the Groundwork when I was a teenager. It was intricate and difficult, but fit together like a brilliant puzzle.


But it's this blockage which is barring the road to the future of the economy too. How can we know what we want, or what kind of society and people and flourishing we want, if we have a shallow geometric universalism? There is no "we" then, just utility-maximizing agents. All the content is leached out of the questions. We strip away most of the important attributes of human beings before we consider ethics. The "good life" is rendered empty and abstract. All the purpose and dignity is flushed out of life.


Equality of status may have been noble in the eighteenth century in East Prussia. Universal maxims may have given the illusion of making ethical choices appear like a mathematical problem as well. But the truth is life doesn't work like that. There is more to life than bland universalist reason.


A single measure or many?

We're still talking about The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

One point she is careful to repeatedly stress is that the virtues are not reducible to a single measure of utility. She is trying to avoid her points being assimilated into standard mainstream economics, a little like the Borg absorbing foreign material.

That might be just as bad as being rejected out of hand.

Until the framework somewhat mysteriously fell out of favor among theorists in the late eighteenth century, most Westerners did not think in Platonic terms of the One Good-to be summarized, say, as maximum utility, or as the categorical imperative, or as the Idea of the Good. They thought in Aristotelian terms of many virtues, plural.

Adam Smith himself was more sophisticated. We needed to balance different virtues or inclinations, not simply blur them together.

After all, said Smith as early as 1759, we want people to have a balanced set of virtues, including even love, not merely prudence, and this for all purposes, sacred, profane, business, pleasure, the good, the useful, the wide world, and the home, too. After his death, however, his followers came to believe that a profane Prudence, called "Utility," rules. Jeremy Bentham and his followers, and especially his twentieth-century descendents Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, Milton Friedman, and Gary Becker, are to blame. These are good men, great scientists, beloved teachers and friends of mine. But their confused advocacy of Prudence Only has been a catastrophe for the science that Adam Smith inaugurated.

Of course, this point of view is anathema in much of the economics profession. It is potentially unrigorous. It is not easily quantifiable in a straightforward way. The equations are not tractable.

But it is something I profoundly agree with, precisely because I think the positivistic narrow conception of utility which has dominated welfare economics since the 1930s is wrong. Pareto-optimality is a thin and inadequate measure for public policy. Interpersonal comparisons of activity have to be made, even if methodologicaly objectionable to some.

In fact, she says, utilitarian rules do not make sense even in their own terms.
Disinterested solidarity is necessary for any human activity-even, to take what would seem to be the hardest case, for the playing of a game. It has been discovered mathematically that games such as those contemplated by John Nash, that beautiful mind, cannot be played to mutual profit with Prudence Only rules. For one thing, if the game is finite-even as long as ten moves-it unravels into selfishness. For another, if it is not finite, it has an infinite number of solutions. The second point is known as the Folk Theorem, because no one knows who first devised it-and perhaps because it is so destructive of game theory that no game theorist now will claim it.
She also argues, perhaps with knowing rhetorical venom, that the "max-U" approach is a guy thing. She says alternatives have often come from women.
Nancy Chodorow, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, Annette Baier, and Rosalind Hursthouse, have since about 1958 turned a woman's eye on ethical philosophy. They have noted that love is not self-love. (Ethical theory had been for a long time, oddly, a guy thing. I suppose that's an entailment of "theory" in general having been for a long time a guy thing. Women from Sappho to Virginia Woolf did their ethical thinking in poems and stories, not in philosophy.)
And she says much of the new thinking on Aristotle is female as well.
This program of Aristotle in modern dress, I say, has been strikingly feminine. Its leaders have been women, though, as Kathryn Morgan observed, none of them is a "star" in the style of John Rawls or Robert Nozick.
I don't think this is actually true - Alisdair McIntyre is one star of neo-Aristotelian perspectives. And I'm not sure it's useful to take that kind of gendered approach.
But it is an intriguing point.

I think it if anything comes down (again) to a difference in mental styles, in Isaiah Berlin's terms, the difference between the fox and the hedgehog. Aristotle is the paradigmatic fox, Plato the arch-hedgehog. Perhaps no matter how intellectual debate goes, or how the world moves on, some people will never be convinced to change their minds because some minds are full of multiplicity, and some are full of precise consistency.

The myth of lost community

We're still discussing Deirdre McCloskey's book The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

She also argues that the idea that we have somehow lost a golden age of close community or embedded meaning is simply wrong. Everyone believes it, except, she says, historians who have actually looked at it. The German 19th century belief that Gemeinschaft, organic community, had lost out to thin, rational Gesellschaft is not actually true.
Since capitalism took command, the social landscape has been enriched, not eroded, as many modern sociologists have discovered-at any rate those who have looked into the matter rather than accept nineteenth-century German romanticism and twentieth-century Catholic nostalgia.
Nor does capitalism or market behavior encourage greed or discourage trust.
In other words, it's not the case that market capitalism requires or generates loveless people. More like the contrary. Markets and even the much-maligned corporations encourage friendships wider and deeper than the atomism of a full-blown socialist regime or the claustrophobic, murderous atmosphere of a "traditional" village. Modern capitalist life is love-saturated. Olden life was not loving; communitarian life was not; and actually existing socialist life decidedly was not.

So how did this view that capitalism destroys the community come about?
Intellectually speaking the claim of "fragmentation," I say, descends from German suspicion of French Enlightenment, which around 1800 emerged as Romance, and later in the century was intellectualized as the particularly German theme in professional folklore, history, anthropology, theology, and at last sociology. One finds many central-European intellectuals and their followers early in the twentieth century repeating what they learned about the modern world's lack of solidarity from Marx, Weber, and the rest, accented by the passing bells of 1914-1918: thus Karl Mannheim, Martin Heidegger, Karl Polanyi, Arnold Hauser, Herbert Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Max Horkheimer, and many others after the Great War declaring themselves to be hollow men.
Of course, capitalism does cause gales of change - or at least does not inherently try to resist change. And change can disrupt communities and socieites. Factories close. Trade routes change. New inventions put old firms out of business.

But this rapid change can also lead to more social freedom, she argues,
A faith rooted in the economic importance of land made elders and imagined ancestors powerful, for good or ill. You can see it in the twists of eighteenth-century plays and novels right through Jane Austen, in which the elders control inheritance and therefore the hopeful young. The displacing of land by human capital as the main source of wealth sharply devalued faith, the past, the dead hand, the mortgage, the family line, the ancestors. And it upvalued hope, the future, the children, the individual.
Again, there is no necessary link between the modern economy and social dysfunction. She keeps coming back to the fact that the astonishing increase in wealth and productivity in the last two hundred years has given people the means and the time to take up all sorts of other issues and hobbies and interests and affiliations.

And one thing she does not mention is Toqueville's observations about the United States - the most competitive and capitalist society at the time was also a nation of compulsive joiners, full of associations, societies, voluntary unions and social enterprise.

Maybe we slump over the television after a long days work now. But that is partially a matter of choice. People don't want to be bound too tightly in social convention.

Incidentally, I'm not sure which parts of Karl Polanyi she is complaining about. I read his book The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time about ten years ago, and as I recall, the main argument is not so much we have lost an organic sense of community, as the rise of demoncracy has made laissez-faire and the gold standard politically impossible.

In other words, Polanyi was arguing an early version of the same kind of transformation I'm saying is taking place. To him, the economic mechanism that worked - with some volatility - in the 19th century could no longer work in the 20th century, precisely because a wider franchise meant social resistance was too strong. I am saying that evolving social aspiration is changing the nature of the things we want. We have a wider set of wants than before, and that too makes earlier versions of the economy somewhat obsolete.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Romanticism and the Clerisy

I'm discussing The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce by Deirdre McCloskey.
One of her arguments got me thinking, even a little worried about some of the things I argue on this blog.

There is a long history of people criticising capitalism for being unfulfulling, shallow, and something worthy of contempt, she says. People want to imagine themselves as subject to deeper motivations and callings than simply trading and exchange.

Clearly, this is not exacty a new or original thing to say. And It would be a little embarrassing if I was just arguing for warmed-over 19th-century romanticism of the kind she criticizes.

But fortunately I'm not. I'll get back to that later.

She says:
The left side of the clerisy has never wavered in its 150-year-old campaign against the system that has made its arts and sciences possible. Most educated people in our time, though enriched by bourgeois virtues in themselves and in others, imagine the virtue of their lives as heroic courage or saintly love uncontaminated by bourgeois concerns. They pose as rejecting bourgeois ethics.
There is a long tradition too of spurning capitalism as being "uncool" or boring.
Respectability looks boring to the Romantic, and if he is comfortable enough to be bored he is repelled. He looks for an exciting life.
We can hear this yearning in Sarah Ahmed's Promise of Happiness book,  which we looked at a few weeks ago. Ahmed values political engagement, stimulation, and possibility - ie, hope - over happiness. In McCloskey's view, this would be a huge imbalance of hope over the other virtues.

You don't have to be a radical or romantic to be uneasy about bourgeois values. There  is much concern about shallow consumerism, and arguments that capitalism undermines feelings of community or solidarity. McCloskey thinks this is misdirected. For example:
Jonathan Sacks, the chief rabbi of Britain and the British Commonwealth, sometimes repeats the usual claim of religious leaders, unsubstantiated, that "the dominance of the market [has] had a corrosive effect on the social landscape" and that "the institutions of civil society ... have become seriously eroded in consumption-driven cultures." He is mistaken. It is a mistake for one thing to think of bourgeois life as "consumption-driven," if one means that spend, spend, spend is necessary for its survival. An aristocrat or a peasant will spend, spend, spend when he can, yet his life consists of more.
Of course, it is easy to agree with criticism of shallow consumerism. Incontinent spending is not particularly virtuous either. But it isn't an inherent immovable middle-class vice.
And it is the anti-market, anti-capitalists who have produced misery.
In short, the neoaristocratic, cryptopeasant, proclerisy, antibourgeois theories of the nineteenth century, applied during the twentieth century for taxing, fixing, resisting, modifying, prohibiting, collectivizing, regulating, unionizing, ameliorating, expropriating modern capitalism, failed of their purposes, killed many millions, and nearly killed us all.
So - am I just echoing the rather tedious romantic criticism of the economy, seeing it as shallow besides other selfless goals like nationalism or socialism or environmentalism?

No. I don't want to identify with the romantic or left-wing critique of capitalism. I agree with McCloskey, who believes capitalism has delivered much greater abundance and opportunity than warrior aristocracies or "real, existing socialism" ever did.

Indeed, I think the primarily aesthetic critique of capitalism from many on the left is mostly repellent. Socialist architecture and state-sponsored European art house movies have little to recommend them either.

Problems of success, not failure

Instead, the problems we face are caused by the success of capitalism, not its failure. It's a consequence of the fact the economy is evolving, and we haven't kept up with what that means. The nature of human wants is changing, simply because so many wants have already been met.

Old-school Marxists believed capitalism would suffer from accumulation crises, a critique which has got renewed attention since the beginning of the current crisis. But this is dependent on a naive labor theory of value.

They believe the inherent contradictions of capitalism immiserate the workers, meaning production can no longer be profitably sold. Yet human capital and technological transformation make that debate pointless. We have new needs. We have new wants. We are in the situation of older aristocracies. where we are not materialy constrained. But we have a different set of wants and needs.

The reason we need to change is not because capitalism hasn't delivered the goods. It's because the economy is shifting towards a desire for higher-order goods. And there is more disputation and disagreement about what those ought to be - and more problems if those goods are not excludable, rivalrous, tradable goods.

Aristocracies made up most of the few groups who did not have to worry about material concerns in the past. They valued a subset of the virtues - courage, military honor, display, rank. They despised those who had to work for a living. Those values, those virtues cannot be a way forward for the future. Nor can religious values of hope or love on their own either.

Nor can communitarian or social values in isolation. We need a more realisitic conception of what the good life is. And McCloskey's accont of the seven virtues - going all the way back to medieval and classical tradition - is more convincing than utlitarianism or rights-based liberalism.

(reedit 2/26)

The Bourgeois Virtues by Deirdre McCloskey

So here's a big book with an interesting story, The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

Deirdre McCloskey is a well-known economist, with a reputation for originality or, depending on how you like to see it, being a maverick renegade. She is a neoclassical Chicago economic historian by training. But she has been asking about the rhetorical underpinnings of economics for some time. She also, in a story well-known in the profession, used to be a he, Donald McCloskey, but has transitioned to being a woman.

She has written a bracingly well-informed and original book. She argues that capitalism, far from being immoral as much of the left think, or amoral as many libertarians believe, is in fact fully compatible with human and ethical flourishing. And its record on actually encouraging flourishing is much better than the alternatives.

"Bourgeois" has become a term of abuse in the last 150 years, she says. But it shouldn't be. The problem is that an overdose of Kantian universalism led us to forget the older ethical wisdom of humanity. Like Alisdair McIntrye, who we discussed earlier, she wants to restore the ethical tradition of the virtues.

The ethical framework, most gloriously developed by St. Thomas Aquinas in the middle of the thirteenth century, assigned a place of honor among the seven virtues to Prudence-that is, to know-how, competence, a thrifty self-interest, "rationality" on a broad definition. Prudence is the storied prime virtue of a bourgeoisie. But from the time of Machiavelli and Hobbes to the time of Bentham and Thomas Gradgrind, the system of four pagan plus three Christian virtues was gradually pushed out of balance, at any rate theoretically, by the rising dominance of Prudence.

Prudence alone - the calculating homo economicus or "Max-U" of mainstream economics - is a thin and unconvincing way to see things, something that only dawned her in her 40s and 50s after years thinking in a standard Samuelsonian economics framework.
She spends much of the book discussing the older virtues. Instead of the original Aristotelian system, she adopts the seven recognized by Aquinas - courage, temperance, justice, prudence- the pagan virtues; and faith, hope and charity/love - the Christian virtues.
The problem, she says, predates current economics. It starts with Kant and Bentham, with their emphasis on universal rules and narroe utility.
That in turn produces an overreaction the other way among romantics, particularly in Germany.

In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries the European venture, tragically, was spoiled. It was spoiled as I said by a reaction among Romantics in favor of unbalanced love and courage, by an apotheosis among Benthamites of prudence only and among Kantians of reason as justice and temperance only. The vision of a balanced ethical system was further spoiled by an enthusiastic belief in antimarket versions of faith and hope among the new evangelicals, religious and secular.
The older system of virtues promoted balance. The new ethical system did not. The "clerisy", the modern bien-pensant secular priestly class, rejects capitalism. It is boring, unsatisfying, uncool. But the alternativr secular religions produced blood and mayhem in the twentieth century.
We'll take a look at some of her themes in turn.

[other posts in this series are here, here here, here, and here]