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June 2011 posts

Marriage equality in New York: It should have been done better.

Mark D. White

Last nigt New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill allowing same-sex marriage after a lengthy process of legislative tomfoolery. Those who have read my previous posts and work on the issue will not be surprised to hear that I am very happy about the result and less than pleased with the process.

Unlike most, I think issues such as same-sex marriage, which at their core are issues of human rights and dignity, are matters best dealt with by the courts, not the legislature--a small quibble, perhaps, seeing that the just result was achieved, but an important one nonetheless. Just in pragmatic terms, legislation can be overturned much more easily than court decisions. But on principled terms, human rights should never be put to a vote--they should be affirmed by the courts, our designed guardians of principle, rather than a deliberative political body.

One quote from the news report above (from The New York Times) may help make my point:

With his position still undeclared, Senator Mark J. Grisanti, a Republican from Buffalo who had sought office promising to oppose same-sex marriage, told his colleagues he had agonized for months before concluding he had been wrong.

“I apologize for those who feel offended,” Mr. Grisanti said, adding, “I cannot deny a person, a human being, a taxpayer, a worker, the people of my district and across this state, the State of New York, and those people who make this the great state that it is the same rights that I have with my wife.”

Very inspiring, and it helps make a case that popular affirmation of same-sex marriage may be more satisfying symbolically (especially when it involves people changing their minds and supporting it). But it also points out that the people of New York state left it to its state legislature to decide whether gays and lesbians have the same rights that straights have with their spouses. And as we have seen over the weeks this has played out, the successful vote was never assured until last night--a dreadfully uncertain and contingent method for asserting equal human rights and dignity for all.

Nobel Prize a Collective Effort

Jonathan B. Wight

At 87, Robert Solow (Nobel Prize 1987) recently gave up his office in the MIT Department of Economics.

Finance and Development caught up with him before his move to survey his career of more than 60 years. Solow's parting comment is worth repeating and discussing:

"[T]he most important thing in intellectual success is being part of a high-morale group. I think that progress comes from intellectual communities, not from individuals generally. That's what's wrong with Nobel Prizes and all that."

Social economics explores the ways in which group interaction and ethics contribute to the creation of (among other things) trust necessary for change and growth. Most intellectual markets involve autonomous--but not anonymous--agents whose group interactions alter preferences and influence choices through framing. Among other things, our colleagues help us reduce procrastination by according (or withholding) status and other social rewards (see The Thief of Time: Philosophical Essays on Procrastination, edited by Chrisoula Andreou and Mark D. White, Oxford, 2010).

The "fallacy of composition" is the widespread but mistaken notion that what is true (or works) in the individual or group situation is also true (or works) in society at large. Applied here, there is a dichotomy between the evolutionarily-adaptable emotional instincts for sociability (and the resulting ethical rules that evolve) and the more abstract and logical duties that are owed to anonymous strangers. The production of intellectual capital has been modeled as an anonymous quest for profit maximization. This is, at best, misleading; the micro-micro foundations of success may have more to do with emotional commitments and duties than with pecuniary motives.

Not that more money hurts -- but it might. A long time ago when I was serving on a search committee for the Dean of a new school that had just been endowed, a top candidate for the job asked about the facilities. "Don't worry," said the provost. "We're building a brand-new building and you'll have the best office in it." The candidate shook his head ruefully and eventually turned us down. He stated: "That's not how you build camaraderie when starting a new program. All the fancy offices and money create jealousies and petty spitefulness, destroying morale. If I start a new program like this, it should be housed in the basement of the worst building on campus. And all of the new hires will draw together as a team, focus on the important things, and get those things done!"

(P.S. -- Don't show this to my Dean, because I like my corner office and can swear my productivity is higher in it. J )

Kantian economics, business leadership, and social responsiblity

Mark D. White

EFR In the latest issue of The European Finance Review (June/July 2011), I have an invited article in which I present the essential points of the Kantian-economic model of choice that I develop more fully in Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character. I also apply the model to business decision-making, and then sketch some preliminary thoughts on the implications of the model--and of Kantian ethics in general--for social responsibility, thoughts which I will elaborate on in January as a participant in the Association for Social Economics program at the ASSA meetings in Chicago (organized by Martha Starr).

Evolution and the Beauty Pageant

Jonathan B. Wight

According to news accounts, Alyssa Campanella, who was crowned Miss USA last night, actually believes in evolution and thinks it should be taught in schools.

[Click to play the clip.]

Forty-eight of the other Miss USA contestants weren't sure, or didn't think such controversies should be taught in schools.

Women who get to the finals of the Miss USA pageant are highly talented and extremely competitive. Is anything to be made from the fact that (aside from the winner and one other contestant) they do not appear to be particularly supportive of science? A disheartening word I received today is that students in Belgium start preschool at … age 2! We thought we had a missile gap, and now we know it is a pre-K gap. How can we ever keep up?

While beauty pageant contestants (as a group) have little to say about evolution, evolutionists have plenty to say about beauty. Beauty affords advantages to procreation by signaling fitness. Interestingly, Adam Smith weighed in on the subject, and argued that our perception of beauty had not as much to do with usefulness as with achieving a standard of perfection for its own sake (The Theory of Moral Sentiments , Glasgow edition, p. 180).

Considering "The Failure of Rational Choice Philosophy" (The New York Times' The Stone)

Mark D. White

In today's installment of The Stone in The New York Times, UCLA's John McCumber presents a very critical view of "rational choice philosophy," by which he seems to mean the narrow version promulgated by most mainstream economists. In discussing the ethical problem with rational choice theory, he writes:

Rational choice theory, being a branch of economics, does not question people’s preferences; it simply studies how they seek to maximize them. Rational choice philosophy seems to maintain this ethical neutrality (see Hans Reichenbach’s 1951 “The Rise of Scientific Philosophy,” an unwitting masterpiece of the genre); but it does not. Whatever my preferences are, I have a better chance of realizing them if I possess wealth and power. Rational choice philosophy thus promulgates a clear and compelling moral imperative: increase your wealth and power!

Of course, in its simplest form, yes; but readers of this blog know that rational choice does not imply singleminded pursuit of one's own narrow self-interest. McCumber may be correct that more elaborate and ethically rich version of choice theory are presented and promoted too rarely, but I think he is too hasty in dismissing it altogether.

He also conflates rational choice with individualism, and concludes that we need an alternative to "rational choice individualism" that is "quite a bit like Hegel in its view that individual freedom is of value only when communally guided." But flipping from one extreme to the other is not necessary, especially when one begins with a straw man.

For instance, in chapter 3 of Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character, I argue that the economic agent should be considered "individual in essence, social in orientation." Kantian autonomy implies that persons are independent and individual decision-makers, but Kantian ethics demands that those decisions be made in explicitly ethical ways, based on the recognition of the autonomy and dignity of other persons. Individuals' choices don't have to be "communally guided," as McCumber says in his conclusion, because real people already incorporate ethical factors into their decision-making, whether they do so in way that would be recognized as Kantian, virtue-oriented, or utilitarian--and they do so autonomously and independently. As I wrote,

the Kantian-economic approach maintains that agents are essentially individual, but at the same time they can be—and, ethically speaking, must be—social in orientation. I hope to have reassured those with concerns about sociality or community that individualism need not be threatening. In fact, if we treat persons as individuals imbued with autonomy and dignity, social harmony takes on much more meaning because it will be the result of free, individual choices, rather than coercively enforced order. (Kantian Ethics and Economics, p. 105).

Just because rational choice and individualism have not presented well doesn't mean they should be abandoned. We simply need a better understand of them (which is one of the things we try to do on this blog).

A Bright Side of American Capitalism

Jonathan B. Wight

I wrote a few weeks ago about social marketing and networking. On one level social marketing is shamelessly shallow, leaving many people cringing at the chutzpah of near strangers. Why are you "friending" me on Facebook? Are you networking to get a job or because we actually share genuine moral sentiments?

After two weeks meeting with folks in the Bay Area—the Left Coast—I am more convinced than ever that young Americans, who in many ways drive American culture and hence business marketing, are rejecting shallowness in favor of genuine connectivity and community. Of course, there are lots of exceptions. But the social gestalt does seem to be shifting, so that the standard neoclassical view of "enlightened self interest" is giving way to "authentic selfhood." That is, people are striving to understand how to be true to ideals and virtues.

One manifestation of this might be reflected in the termination of Glenn Beck's show on Fox (ending June 30). Van Jones, who earlier left the Obama White House under the withering criticism of Beck, had this to say:

Good American businesses make a decision about who they want to associate their brands with," he said. "And if you violate the principles of good discourse and fair play in America, good American businesses will not stay with you and you won't stay in the public square very long.

"So it's not just a triumph of American capitalism," Jones said. "It's a triumph of American values."

Another way to say this is: markets are essential for the expression of human interests and to promote change. However, markets are no guarantee that you'll have the right consumer values that will promote human rights or anything else. Hence, markets—by themselves—need complementary institutions in order to create the incentives and values that lead to a desirable society.

The overseas superstar status of Michael Sandel and what economics can learn from it

Mark D. White

Thomas L. Friedman had an interesting piece in The New York Times last week describing the rock star reception given in Asia recently to Harvard political philosopher Michael J. Sandel, author of Justice: What's the Right Thing to Do? and lecturer in the accompanying PBS series (available here). In the piece, Friedman writes (emphasis mine):

Sandel’s popularity in Asia reflects the intersection of three trends. One is the growth of online education, where students anywhere now can gain access to the best professors from everywhere. Another is the craving in Asia for a more creative, discussion-based style of teaching in order to produce more creative, innovative students. And the last is the hunger of young people to engage in moral reasoning and debates, rather than having their education confined to the dry technical aspects of economics, business or engineering.

This characterization of economics education may be true in some cases, but certainly not all--there are many economics professors who can bring economics alive in much the same way that Sandel presents philosophy. And to be fair, philosophy (especially analytical philosophy) can often seem dry and technical to students as well if not taught extraordinarily well.

But if economics seems dry to many students, even when presented by a talented professor, then perhaps it could use some philosophy to enliven it, whether that means highlighting the philosophy that is embedded in economics already, or bringing fresh concepts from philosophy to bear on economic thinking and teaching. Any way we can, we should remind students that economics was once much more closely tied to economics than it is commonly thought of now, and that economists were once heralded as The Worldly Philosophers, not purveyors of "dry" and "technical" analysis.

Is Being Gay Protected for Intrinsic or Extrinsic Reasons?

Jonathan B. Wight

The Richmond Federal Reserve Bank is flying a gay-pride flag this June that upset some local politicians, according to the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Fed President Jeff Lacker wrote to employees that the decision to fly the flag "was motivated by business reasons and an attempt to foster inclusiveness." The RFRB, Lacker said, was interested in improving its ability to attract talented employees, "which requires respecting different perspectives."

On one level this decision was courageous. On another level this justification sounded hollow and perhaps a bit insulting. It is undoubtedly true that most large employers have adopted same-sex partner benefits and other inclusiveness policies as a way to improve productivity. And perhaps this is all the political climate in the nation can tolerate. But I'd like to think that a clearer articulation of basic human rights would sometime soon be accepted:

Did we free slaves because that would increase productivity? Or because we came to recognize the fundamental injustice of an economic system that would permit other persons to be treated as less than fully human?

There are few things that I am certain of looking to the future. But one conviction I do have is that in a few decades it will become a universal understanding that sexual orientation is a matter of human right, and will be respected for that reason alone—independent of important economic efficiency considerations. It is interesting and useful to speculate about which comes first.

Op-ed on dignity and choice in health care in Washington Times

Mark D. White

This morning I have an op-ed in The Washington Times discussing the importance of individual choice in health care to dignity, based on the end of my chapter in Accepting the Invisible Hand: Market-Based Approaches to Social-Economic Problems and, more broadly, Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character.

Neuroplasticity: The amazing regenerative properties of the brain (at Neuroskeptic)

Mark D. White

I realize this is way off topic (but when has that stopped me before)--I was fascinated by the latest entry at the great blog Neuroskeptic about a victim of extensive brain damage who made an amazing recovery despite losing significant portions of her brain, reminiscent of the famous case of Phineas Gage (who suffered a railroad spike through his head and continued to live a functional life but with a radically changed personality).