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March 2011 posts

Why did we evolve to reason? (in Behavioral and Brain Sciences) [UPDATED]

Mark D. White

The new issue of Behavioral and Brian Sciences (34/2, 2011) focuses on the nature of the evolutionary advantages of reasoning; the target article, by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, is titled "Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory":

Reasoning is generally seen as a means to improve knowledge and make better decisions. However, much evidence shows that reasoning often leads to epistemic distortions and poor decisions. This suggests that the function of reasoning should be rethought. Our hypothesis is that the function of reasoning is argumentative. It is to devise and evaluate arguments intended to persuade. Reasoning so conceived is adaptive given the exceptional dependence of humans on communication and their vulnerability to misinformation. A wide range of evidence in the psychology of reasoning and decision making can be reinterpreted and better explained in the light of this hypothesis. Poor performance in standard reasoning tasks is explained by the lack of argumentative context. When the same problems are placed in a proper argumentative setting, people turn out to be skilled arguers. Skilled arguers, however, are not after the truth but after arguments supporting their views. This explains the notorious confirmation bias. This bias is apparent not only when people are actually arguing, but also when they are reasoning proactively from the perspective of having to defend their opinions. Reasoning so motivated can distort evaluations and attitudes and allow erroneous beliefs to persist. Proactively used reasoning also favors decisions that are easy to justify but not necessarily better. In all these instances traditionally described as failures or flaws, reasoning does exactly what can be expected of an argumentative device: Look for arguments that support a given conclusion, and, ceteris paribus, favor conclusions for which arguments can be found.

As usual, many short comments follow, in what seems like a fascinating discussion.

UPDATE: I discuss the paper in a little depth at this post at Psychology Today.

Freedom, Paternalism, and Morality workshop at Bowling Green

Mark D. White

Thanks to Jeremy Blumenthal at Prawfsblawg, I just became aware of a fascinating workshop titled "Freedom, Paternalism, and Morality" being held at Bowling Green State University later this week (April 1 and 2). Happily, for those unable to attend (such as me), most of the papers are available at the workshop website (and below):

Keynote Addresses:

Douglas Husak (Rutgers University)
"Special Problems for Paternalism in the Penal Law"

Richard Arneson (University of California at San Diego)
"Paternalism and the Principle of Fairness" 
[For abstract, click here.  For a background paper, click here]

Workshop papers:

Danny Scoccia (New Mexico State University)
"The Right to Autonomy and the Justification of Hard Paternalism"

Steve Wall (University of Arizona) 
"Moral Environmentalism"

Larry Alexander (University of San Diego School of Law)
"Voluntary Enslavement"

Jeremy Blumenthal (Syracuse College of Law) 
"A Psychological Defense of Paternalism"

Jennifer Blumenthal-Barby  (Baylor College of Medicine)
"A Defense of Libertarian Paternalism"
[ For abstract, click here]

Daniel Haybron (St. Louis University) and Anna Alexandrova (University of Missouri, St Louis)
"Paternalism and Economics" [For abstract, click here]

Michael Cholbi (California State Polytechnic University, Pomona)
"Kantian Paternalism and Suicide Intervention"

Sigal Ben-Porath (University of Pennsylvania)
"Paternalism, Choice and Opportunity"

Symposium on Adam Smith and virtue in the art of theory

Mark D. White

Hanley At Knowledge Problem, Lynne Kiesling tells us about a new journal, the art of theory, edited by graduate students at various top universities, and their inaugural issue, which features a symposium on Ryan Patrick Hanley's new book, Adam Smith and the Character of Virtue. From the book description:

Recent years have witnessed a renewed debate over the costs at which the benefits of free markets have been bought. This book revisits the moral and political philosophy of Adam Smith, capitalism's founding father, to recover his understanding of the morals of the market age. In so doing it illuminates a crucial albeit overlooked side of Smith's project: his diagnosis of the ethical ills of commercial societies and the remedy he advanced to cure them. Focusing on Smith's analysis of the psychological and social ills endemic to commercial society – anxiety and restlessness, inauthenticity and mediocrity, alienation and individualism – it argues that Smith sought to combat corruption by cultivating the virtues of prudence, magnanimity and beneficence. The result constitutes a new morality for modernity, at once a synthesis of commercial, classical and Christian virtues and a normative response to one of the most pressing political problems of Smith's day and ours.

The first essay in the symposium in excerpted from the book, followed by five commentaries, and then a response from Hanley. (Kiesling's own comments at Knowledge Problem are also well worth a read.)

Is the Moral Force of Contracts Based on Promise or Consent?

Mark D. White

(To any law-and-economics people reading this: no, the title is not a trick question.)

In 1981, law professor Charles Fried published Contract as Promise, which questioned the utilitarian, efficiency-based defense of contract provided by proponents of law and economics, and offered a deontological, promise-based explanation instead.

In 2011, as part of a 30th anniversary celebration of Fried's book, Randy Barnett has published (forthcoming in Suffolk University Law Review) a paper titled "Contract Is Not Promise; Contract is Consent":

In the 1980s, Charles Fried was right to focus on what was missing from both the “death of contract” and “law and economics” approaches to contract law: the internal morality of contract. But he focused on the wrong morality. Rather than embodying the morality of promise-keeping, the enforcement of contracts can best be explained and justified as a product of the parties’ consent to be legally bound. In this essay, I observe that, in Contract as Promise, Fried himself admits that the “promise principle” cannot explain or justify two features that are at the core of contract law: the objective theory of assent and the content of most “gap fillers” or default rules of contract law. After summarizing how consent to contract accounts for both, I explain that, whereas the morality of promise-keeping is best considered within the realm of ethics — or private morality — legally enforcing the consent of the parties is a requirement of justice — or public morality.

For more on Barnett's views, see his earlier paper, "A Consent Theory of Contract," Columbia Law Review, 86(2), March 1986, pp. 269-321.

Methodology in Philosophical Bioethics (in the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics)

Mark D. White

Rat-genetics The latest issue of the Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics (20/2, April 2011) contains two fascinating symposia, the first on methodology in philosophical bioethics and the second on global bioethics. Here are the chapter titles (and links to abstracts and paper)in the first, all of which use Matti Häyry's book Rationality and the Genetic Challenge: Making People Better? as a starting point for discussion. (I'll post on the global ethics symposium later.)

Much Ado about Happiness

Mark D. White

Carl Bialik at The Wall Street Journal has an article in today's edition and a blog post from last night, both very evenhanded, about the attempts by governments to measure the happiness of its citizenry, and the skepticism of some regarding the efficacy of this.

For a critical look at the theory behind happiness studies, I would recommend Dan Hausman's article "Hedonism and Welfare Economics" from Economics and Philosophy, 26(3), November 2010.

I have two significant problems with governments purporting to measure happiness (which are similar to my problems with libertarian paternalism), which I hope to explore at length elsewhere.

1) Happiness is too vague a notion, and multifaceted a concept, to be measured with any degree of accuracy, and any instrument that is developed to do so will inevitably reflect the policy preferences of the parties doing the measuring.

2) It is grossly inappropriate for governments to base any policy decisions on what it thinks makes its people "happy" (or wealthy or wise), when what they should do is enable (and respect) the widest range of choices the people can make in their own interests (to whatever extent these interests include happiness). It is not up to the government to decide that we should be "happy" (especially according to some artificial and contrived definition), nor to take measures to get us there.

(See also this older post of mine at Psychology Today, making a similar point about happiness, but in the context of personal happiness and positive psychology rather than political theory.)

The Virtuous Discourse of Adam Smith (at the Mercatus Center)

Mark D. White

From the Mercatus Center today comes "The Virtuous Discourse of Adam Smith," a paper by Michael J. Clark, visiting assistant professor at the University of Baltimore:

Recent academic work has attempted to change the interpretation of Adam Smith from the founder of free-market economics to a proponent of something much more akin to the modern welfare state. This paper will attempt to refute those approaches by analyzing Adam Smith’s views on strategic politeness.

The paper will show that Smith advocated an approach for political discussion that utilizes strategic yielding and caution when necessary. Smith related the approach to that of the Athenian official Solon who put forth laws that attempted to be ―the best that the people can bear. The approach can lead one to moderation, non disclosure, or fudging of extreme views. According to Smith, there was virtue in considering and at times yielding to the prejudice of the public.

The cautious nature of Smith’s approach has been misinterpreted in modern literature. Smith’s caution is being taken for mild to moderate interventionist support. While the works and ideas of Adam Smith remain foundational to modern economics the interpretation of Smith is changing. This paper defends the interpretation of Adam Smith as a strong proponent of liberty based on his strategic approach.

Sitting at the Literary Table

Mark D. White

Accepting a gracious invitation from Warren Emerson, I am now guest-blogging at The Literary Table, a general interest blog with a special focus on law and the humanities (especially literature). Until such time as they kick me out, I plan on doing most of my law-related blogging there, including discussing my forthcoming edited book Retributivism: Essays on Theory and Policy, as well as my long-promised blog posts on Ethan Leib's book Friend v. Friend: The Transformation of Friendship--and What the Law Has to Do with It (which be split between the Table and my Psychology Today blog).

UPDATE: My first Table post (greetings and introductuon) is here.

Capitalism: A Virtual Special Issue of Socio-Economic Review

Mark D. White

Oxford Journals has compiled a "virtual special issue" of Socio-Economic Review on the topic of capitalism, including several of the papers from the "actual" special issue on "commonalities of capitalism" from several months ago, and adding many more from past volumes of the journal.

All papers in the virtual special issue are freely available online, and are as follows:

Institutional change in varieties of capitalism
Peter A. Hall and Kathleen Thelen
2009 Volume 7(1)

A neorealist approach to institutional change and the diversity of capitalism
Bruno Amable and Stefano Palombarini
2009 Volume 7(1)

The temporalities of capitalism
William H. Sewell, Jr
2008 Volume 6(3)

Towards a more dynamic theory of capitalist variety
Richard Deeg and Gregory Jackson
2007 Volume 5(1)

A new double movement? Anthropological perspectives on property in the age of neoliberalism
Chris Hann
2007 Volume 5(2)

Institutional coherence and macroeconomic performance
Lane Kenworthy
2006 Volume 4(1)

The varieties of capitalism paradigm: not enough variety?
Matthew Allen
2004 Volume 2(1)

Varieties of welfare capitalism
Alexander Hicks and Lane Kenworthy
2003 Volume 1(1)

Confucian Virtue Ethics and Situationism

Mark D. White

In the latest in their series of discussions of papers drawn from the journals EthicsPEA Soup are focusing "The Situationist Critique and Confuncian Virtue Ethics" by Edward Slingerland, which is available through PEA Soup here (for a limited time). The abstract is as follows:

This article argues that strong versions of the situationist critique of virtue ethics are empirically and conceptually unfounded, as well as that, even if one accepts that the predictive power of character may be limited, this is not a fatal problem for early Confucian virtue ethics. Early Confucianism has explicit strategies for strengthening and expanding character traits over time, as well as for managing a variety of situational forces. The article concludes by suggesting that Confucian virtue ethics represents a more empirically responsible model of ethics than those currently dominant in Western philosophy.

Critiques of situationism from scholars in the Western virtue ethics tradition are fairly common, but to see a statement from the viewpoint of Confucianism--I don't know how I missed this one.