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October 2010 posts

On Prudence

Jonathan B. Wight

Prudence is a prim and prudish word that sometimes leads people to think of “selfish.”  But the spin I’ve come to learn about this is that prudence is the cultivation of a certain kind of virtue.  That virtue is to show a proper regard for your future self

We can only experience life here in this moment, at this instant.  That is Jonathan in the Present.  But in a year, there will be another me, Jonathan Year 1.  And there is another person later, Jonathan Year 2.  There is a whole village of future people—my body and my thoughts are a veritable village green – a commons!

In this light, prudence means showing proper regard for those other people in my future commons.  It means showing those people respect by the actions I take today. 

One key issue is whether we project love on them from the present.  I don’t yet know those future people, but I can practice the act of prayer—lifting up my thoughts and heart to them. 

So, in one sense it is not selfish to be prudent, it is showing proper consideration for the rights of my future selves inhabiting the commons of my body. 

I used this metaphor in class the other day and students got it, I think.  Compared to prudence, when students blow off class, binge drink, and have wild sex with multiple partners (sounds fun?), that is being selfish, because their present self is greedy and their futures selves will have to suffer for that.  One’s actions today produce external consequences for one’s other selves in the future.

From a Kantian perspective, it is ethical to treat others with dignity; why would that not apply to our future selves?

Gwartney and Connors, "Economic Freedom and Global Poverty" (from Accepting the Invisible Hand)

Mark D. White

Today we continue our preview of Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems with Chapter 3, "Economic Freedom and Global Poverty," by James D. Gwartney and Joseph Connors. (Chapter 2 by John Meadowcroft was discussed here, Chapter 1 by me was discussed here, and the preface was posted here.)

From the chapter:

Over the period 1980–2005 many developing countries achieved remarkable increases in economic growth. Real per capita income increased substantially in countries that had experienced only modest increases in living standards for a century or more prior to 1980. Recent scholarship has pointed to the adoption of institutional and policy changes more consistent with economic freedom as an important, if not the most important, explanatory factor underlying the recent economic growth of developing countries. But economic growth and increases in real per capita GDP only provide information on how average income figures are changing. They may be a misleading indicator of what is happening to the living standards of the poor. Did the rapid growth of 1980–2005 lead to lower poverty rates? How does economic freedom affect poverty? What can be done to accelerate reductions in poverty rates? This chapter will address all of these issues. (p. 43)

Gwartney and Connors use recent World Bank data on extreme and moderate poverty to analyze the effect of institutional factors associated with economic freedom--"personal choice, voluntary exchange, open markets, and protection of privately owned property" (pp. 47-8)--on poverty rates in various regions of the world.

While economic freedom is commonly held to be associated with higher growth (for reasons reviewed on pages 47-9), the authors also recognize concerns that this higher growth does not increase the well-being of the poorest members of these societies. After analyzing the data from the World Bank together with the Economic Freedom of the World index (and controlling for factors such as foreign aid), they find that increased levels of economic freedom are correlated with lower poverty rates:

Compared to those that were less free, countries with higher economic freedom ratings during 1980–2005 had lower rates of both extreme and moderate poverty in 2005. More importantly, countries with higher levels of economic freedom in 1980 and larger increases in economic freedom during the 1980s and 1990s achieved larger poverty rate reductions than economies that were less free. (p. 56)

This chapter provides valuable empirical support to arguments (such as in Amartya Sen's book Development as Freedom) that changes in institutions and governance that enhance people's freedom and capabilities are crucial to ameliorating global poverty.

Call for Papers: Market and Happiness (Civic Virtues and Human Capabilities)

Mark D. White

Speaking of Luigino Bruni, he just sent me the following call for papers (longer call with submission details and deadlines here), featuring our own Irene van Staveren as a keynote speaker:

Market and Happiness

Do economic interactions crowd out civic virtues and human capabilities?

Econometica and the HEIRs Association, in collaboration with the Economics Department of Milano-Bicocca and Irec (International Review of Economics), are organizing, on June 8-9 2011, an International Conference on "Market and Happiness. Do economic interactions crowd out civic virtues and human capabilities?" with the aim of eliciting contributions on the nexus between wellbeing, economic interactions, civil virtues and human capabilities.

Continue reading "Call for Papers: Market and Happiness (Civic Virtues and Human Capabilities)" »

Bruni on The Happiness of Sociality: Economics and Eudaimonia

Mark D. White

This looks fascinating (though I have't managed to acquire a copy yet), from the latest issue of Rationality and Society (22/4, November 2010):

"The Happiness of Socialty. Economics and Eudaimonia: A Necessary Encounter"

Luigino Bruni, University of Milano-Bicocca, Italy

The paper discusses some issues of the debate on happiness in economics. In particular it deals with the relationship between happiness and sociality. In fact, in contemporary ‘economics and happiness’ literature there is a new interest in interpersonal relationships thanks to the huge empirical evidence that genuine sociality is one of the heaviest components of self-reported happiness. At the same time, mainstream economics is badly equipped for studying genuine sociality, because it treats interpersonal interactions as elements to be taken into account in terms of externalities. The intuition originating the paper is the conviction that if research on happiness aims at taking into account non-instrumental interpersonal relations, i.e. ‘relational goods’, scholars will profit by a reconsideration or retrieving of the Aristotelian tradition of happiness as eudaimonia.

Call for Papers: Reasons of Love

Mark D. White

With thanks to PEA Soup, I am utterly fascinated and intrigued by this call:

Reasons of Love
International Conference
Institute of Philosophy, Katholieke Universiteit Leuven (Belgium)
30 May-1 June 2011

This conference’s title is ambiguous on purpose. The relationship between
love and reasons for action is highly interesting and complicated. It is
not clear how love is related to reasons. Love might be a response to
certain normative reasons, since it seems fitting to love certain objects.
However, love also seems to create reasons and not to be a response to
certain appropriate reasons. Love’s relationship to morality is also
complex. It is not clear how the normative reasons for acting morally are
related to the reasons of love. It is sometimes argued that love is not a
virtue because the reasons for acting morally are not the same as the
reasons for acting lovingly. But the notion of ‘unprincipled virtue’ seems
to make room for love as a motive of morally praiseworthy actions.

This conference seeks to provide an opportunity to discuss these issues.
Related questions are the following: Do ‘the reasons of love’ constitute a
genuine, distinctive category of reasons?  Are different kinds of love
related to different kinds of reasons? What are the requirements of love,
as opposed to the requirements of duty? Are love’s reasons rational or non-
rational? Can love require to act immorally? If so, are love’s
requirements more or less important than those of morality? Is an action
out of love more praiseworthy than an action done out of a sense of duty?
Are there normative reasons for acting lovingly and to what extent do they
justify partiality? How are we to understand ‘acting lovingly’?

Keynote speakers:
Diane Jeske (Iowa), Michael Smith (Princeton) and R. Jay Wallace (Berkeley)


We invite abstract submissions on any issue related to the main topic as
stated above.  Graduate students are encouraged to participate.

The deadline for submission is December 1, 2010. Notification of
acceptance will be sent by January 20, 2011. Abstracts of 1500-2000 words
should be sent to [email protected]  and
[email protected].

At the conference 40 minute slots will be available for presentation,
followed by 20 minutes of discussion.

A selection of papers will be submitted to Philosophical Explorations for

Conference organizers:
Esther Kroeker, Katrien Schaubroeck, Stefaan E. Cuypers, Willem Lemmens

Meadowcroft on "Markets, Discovery, and Social Problems" (from Accepting the Invisible Hand)

Mark D. White

Today we continue our preview of Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems with Chapter 2, "Markets, Discovery, and Social Problems," by John Meadowcroft. (Chapter 1 is mine, discussed here, and the preface was posted here.)

In his chapter, Meadowcroft  argues that markets provide a more nuanced and flexible response to social problems than does government action:

...the solutions produced by markets are more likely to reflect individual preferences and the trade-offs people are willing to make to reconcile competing demands on the use of scarce resources, than the exclusive, one-size-fits-all solutions produced by political decision-making. (p. 23)

 After discussing the universal social problem of coordinating economic activity, Meadowcroft turns to problems he terms "socially constructed," not to imply that such dilemmas are any less important, but merely that they are a result of societal judgments. For instance, his first example is smoking regulation, which is a response to a problem which did not "exist" fifty years ago when smoking was considered less dangerous:

For much of the twentieth century smoking in enclosed public places was commonplace and uncontroversial, but following the discovery of the risks associated with secondhand smoke, and campaigns by public health advocacy groups to publicize those risks, smoking in enclosed public places has become “problematized.” (p. 27)

He then argues that relegating the response to demands for no-smoking areas to owners of businesses (such as bars and restaurants) results in a solution more tailor-made for each unique group of consumers than do blanket bans and regulations:

This political response... is an exclusive, all-or-nothing solution that reflects the preferences of those of nonsmokers unwilling to countenance the presence of smokers in the bars and restaurants they frequent, as well as, perhaps, elite political actors who derive utility from a ban, perhaps from a belief that they are altruistically helping others. (pp. 30-1)

This reinforces his point that

The market process involved the discovery of a range of accommodations between the smoking and nonsmoking patrons of bars and restaurants. This outcome will not satisfy those who have a predetermined view of the correct solution to the problem of secondhand smoke. (p. 31)

Meadowcroft than makes a similar case with respect to education, before delving into the various public choice arguments detailing why government solutions to social problems stemming from the decisions of elected representatives are often problematic, drawing from the work of Anthony Downs, Gordon Tullock, and James Buchanan. (He also addresses libertarian paternalism and Nudge, a popular topic at this blog!)

Meadowcroft concludes with this exceptionally well-crafted statement:

It may be difficult for people with a fixed view of the causes of and solutions to social problems to accept that solutions should emerge spontaneously from a heuristic and intersubjective process driven by individual choices. Indeed, acceptance of such a proposition would require many people to adopt an entirely different worldview. But respect for the integrity and autonomy of individuals and the maximization of well-being require that policymakers confront the reality of economic and political solutions to social problems and accept the market as the most effective and efficacious means of ameliorating social problems. (p. 38)

Violence Is the Normal Order of Things?

Jonathan B.Wight

Violence In case you haven’t seen it, a (relatively) new book explores the fascinating intersection of morality, law, economics, and development:

Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis, and Barry R. Weingast, Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History (Cambridge University Press 2009).

The book received rave reviews from luminaries (it’s on my list of summer reading). 

Here’s the publisher’s blurb:  “All societies must deal with the possibility of violence, and they do so in different ways. This book integrates the problem of violence into a larger social science and historical framework, showing how economic and political behavior are closely linked. Most societies, which we call natural states, limit violence by political manipulation of the economy to create privileged interests. These privileges limit the use of violence by powerful individuals, but doing so hinders both economic and political development. In contrast, modern societies create open access to economic and political organizations, fostering political and economic competition. The book provides a framework for understanding the two types of social orders, why open access societies are both politically and economically more developed, and how some 25 countries have made the transition between the two types.”

Review of Nudge in Economics and Philosophy

Mark D. White

In the latest issue of Economics and Philosophy (26/3), my friend (and The Thief of Time contributor) Joel Anderson has a review of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler's Nudge, a topic of some interest to this blog and to me specifically (having written on libertarian paternalism on several occasions, most extensively here).

It is an exceptionally extensive and insightful review; Anderson appreciates the benefits of the general concept of nudges but has reservations about their conceptual foundations and justifications. In particular, he calls attention to the sense one gets that practioners of libertarian paternalism are relying on agents' cognitive shortcomings rather than helping agents overcome them or find alternative decision-making processes that will arrive at their ideal choices more often (see pp. 374-5).

In the last sentence of the review (p. 376), Anderson cautions that "much work still needs to be done in identifying the principles for implementing nudges appropriately and in a way that cuts out the lingering paternalism." I'm afraid I'm not optimistic; if one regards the essence of paternalism (as I do) to lie in the substitution of policymakers' judgment for that of individual agents themselves, then nudges cannot avoid being paternalistic as long as they attempt to steer decisions toward what the policymaker thinks is best for the agent (e.g. eating fruit rather than cake, enrolling in retirement programs upon employment, etc.).