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September 2011 posts

David Brooks has it right on "The Limits of Empathy"

Mark D. White

In his column in today's New York Times, David Brooks explores "The Limits of Empathy," arguing that empathy may help us feel for other people, but it is not enough to actually spur us to action and help us make tough ethical decisions, and in the end may amount to little more than a self-satisfying crutch:

These days empathy has become a shortcut. It has become a way to experience delicious moral emotions without confronting the weaknesses in our nature that prevent us from actually acting upon them. It has become a way to experience the illusion of moral progress without having to do the nasty work of making moral judgments. In a culture that is inarticulate about moral categories and touchy about giving offense, teaching empathy is a safe way for schools and other institutions to seem virtuous without risking controversy or hurting anybody’s feelings.

Brooks is right when he says people need something more to actually move them to action, some sense of duty or commitment--a code, in his terms:

Think of anybody you admire. They probably have some talent for fellow-feeling, but it is overshadowed by their sense of obligation to some religious, military, social or philosophic code. They would feel a sense of shame or guilt if they didn’t live up to the code. The code tells them when they deserve public admiration or dishonor. The code helps them evaluate other people’s feelings, not just share them. The code tells them that an adulterer or a drug dealer may feel ecstatic, but the proper response is still contempt.

But that still leaves the question: why should we presume someone is moved to action more reliably by a code than by empathy? Brooks' answer is spot on:

The code isn’t just a set of rules. It’s a source of identity. It’s pursued with joy. It arouses the strongest emotions and attachments. Empathy is a sideshow. If you want to make the world a better place, help people debate, understand, reform, revere and enact their codes. Accept that codes conflict.

A person's code is part of his or her identity, and our interest in maintaining our identity as moral persons can prompt us to moral action and guide us in instances of struggle and temptation. I'm not sure if Brooks was implying this, but while adhering to a code certainly does arouse emotions, those emotions should not be the primary motivating factor behind it. (As Kant wrote, we should feel good because we're moral, but we should not be moral simply because it feels good.)

To be fair, I think empathy is enough to motivate some people to moral action, and it is essential for any moral system to work. But Brooks is right to point out that empathy is at risk of becoming a buzzword, a verbal lapel ribbon for those who wish to appear to care for other people without having to back it up with action.

History, history of thought, and ethics

Jonathan B. Wight

Paul Krugman (here and here) laments the sorry intellectual gaps exhibited by modern macro economists, whom Krugman claims are bereft of any knowledge of American economic history, not to mention world economic history. The claim is true not only of macro economists but likely economists in general.

The notion that time and place are important markers for understanding and analyzing economic policies is not something economists like to hear. Rather, if my graduate school training is any indication, economics is often taught purely as a deductive science which is valid for all time and place; moreover, the quality of underlying assumptions is considered irrelevant.

The ignorance of history also applies to history of economic thought—which being focused on insights from the past, is fundamentally suspect in a world of rational expectations. If the market for truth is as efficient as all other markets, there is no need to know history:

An efficient market model of scientific progress suggested by Stigler (1969) would hypothesize a linear flow of advancement such that new knowledge embodies all old knowledge worth keeping…. A present day economist "will assume, just as the mathematician or chemist assumes, that all that is useful and valid in earlier work is present—in purer and more elegant form—in the modern theory." If true, then "there is as little to be gained scientifically from reading old texts as there is from prowling old bookstores for undervalued rarities" (Anderson et al. 1989, 174). George Stigler concludes: "The economics of 1800, like the weather forecasts of 1800, is mostly out of date" (1969, 218). Source: Wight 2002.

Fortunately, the last thirty years have shown Stigler wrong. Economic analysis does not progress linearly— but recursively. In a 2002 article ("The Rise of Adam Smith" in History of Political Economy) I chronicle the "resurrection" of interest in Adam Smith, whose account of the invisible hand is set in a rich context of institutions and history. Importantly, citations to The Theory of Moral Sentiments are growing exponentially. This suggests that Smith's institutional insights into morals—and the interplay with markets—are of growing interest to social scientists.

There are notable inroads in introducing history in economics as well, such as Douglass North's work on institutions and Dani Rodrik's work on policy making in an historical context (One Economics, Many Recipes: Globalization, Institutions, and Economic Growth, 2007). Still, Krugman is right to lament the general a-historical or anti-historical ideology in economics education.

Recognizing the moral issues behind economic policy (in The New York Times)

Mark D. White

Rampell At this blog, we stress the ethical issues that underlie economic reasoning in theory, practice, and policy. In yesterday's post at The New York Times' Economix blog, Catherine Rampell made the same point in response to Peter Orszag's call for improving policymaknig by vesting more power in technocratic committees rather than elected, representative bodies (the emphasis below is mine):

On narrowly defined (and often technical) policy issues, expert panels can be useful. But as I wrote in an article last year about politicians’ poor incentives, delegating policy authority to technocratic panels is more problematic when dealing with larger economic matters that involve social value judgments, like austerity measures and tax reform.

These policy areas may sound like dry academic subjects. But they are thoroughly infused with, and ultimately shaped by, moral beliefs.

There are, after all, infinite combinations of spending cuts and tax increases that can add up to the same bottom line. Deciding what should get trimmed and what taxes should be increased or decreased involves questions of favoritism, welfare, compassion, fairness and all sorts of other subjective judgments not answerable by the “laws” of economics.

It’s not clear that a doctorate in economics (or, for that matter, in theology) gives a person any more moral authority than anyone else. That’s why such decisions are decided through a republican democracy — both lower case — and not by genius academics, however messy and dysfunctional the resulting process may be.

It's nice to see we're not the only ones ringing this bell! (I wonder if another popular NYT blogger read Ms. Rampell's post--I hope he did, but I'm not holding my breath.)

Utilitarians aren't psychopaths--are they?

Mark D. White

The Economist published a short note recently summarizing the results of a forthcoming paper in Cognition that reports that experiment participants "who indicated greater endorsement of utilitarian solutions had higher scores on measures of Psychopathy, machiavellianism, and life meaninglessness" (from the paper abstract). The experimenters presented subjects with variants of trolley dilemmas--either watch five passengers in a runaway trolley car die, or push one bystander onto the tracks to his death to stop the car--and also asked questions to track their psychological dispositions, finding a strong link between the antisocial tendencies and willingness to kill the bystander to save the trolley passengers.

I'm not going to address the secondhand claims by the authors regarding the "characterization of non-utilitarian moral decisions as errors of judgment," which are inevitably and necessarily made from a utilitarian point-of-view; it's the same problem as with Kaplow and Shavell's Fairness versus Welfare, which dismissed nonwelfarist policymaking as insufficiently welfarist. (I happily note that the paper's authors do criticize these statements in the discussion section of the paper.) But I do want to discuss briefly the results reported in the Cognition study, and explain why I have mixed feelings about it.

First, the trolley problem is too nuanced to make a quick-and-easy judgment regarding deontology and utilitarianism (as the authors acknowledge in the discussion section of the paper, albeit for different reasons). True, simple utilitarianism would demand that, all else aside, you kill the one person to save the five. But a deontological outlook--which is much less well-defined--would not necessarily forbid this, as deontology is not categorically opposed to consequentialist considerations. Rather than simply comparing one to five and making a decision based on the equally valid interests of all the person involved (as a utilitarian would), a deontologist would more likely think about the moral status of the individuals in the case, considering any factors related to responsibility or desert in that particular situation. After ruling out such concerns, a deontologist--even a Kantian--may very well kill the one to save the five (for instance, by judging the duty to save five people to have a "stronger ground of obligation" than the duty not to kill the one, according to Kant's only guidance in such cases of conflicting obligations). The brute utilitarian would regard the decision as the implication of a simple comparison (1<5), while the deontologist would more likely use judgment based on the rights of the persons involved--even if they both come to the same result.

Furthermore, the trolley dilemma also wraps up in it the relative moral status of acts and omissions (itself tied into the deontology vs. utilitarianism debate), as well as issues of identity and virtue (am I the kind of person who can take a life, even to save others?), which themselves have greater implications if taking the one life leads to a change of attitudes toward future moral dilemmas. In other words, the trolley problem should not be used as a moral barometer distinguishing between utilitarianism and deontology. This becomes particularly clear when one considers the different reactions people have to the surgeon problem, in which a surgeon considers harvesting organs from his healthy colleague to save five patients who will die without them--very few endorse this action, even those who would push the bystander in front of the trolley, but it can be difficult to parse out the salient differences in the two situations. (Several variants of these problems, including both the trolley and surgeon dilemmas, were used in the study, apparently with no distinctions made.)

As any regular readers of my work (either on this blog or in print) know, I'm no fan of utilitarianism. But I would never go as far as to say its adherents and practitioners are psychopaths. Utilitarians obviously do care about the well-being of people--my problem is that they are concerned with aggregate well-being that ignores the distinctions between persons (as Rawls said so well) and the inherent dignity and rights of each (as Kant wrote). And that is problematic: regarding persons as nothing but contributors to the collective good implies that each person has no independent, distinct value. And if so, why care about people's interests at all? To my mind, the utilitarian's disregard for the dignity of the individual is self-defeating, since it eliminates any imperative to consider persons' well-being at all (much less to consider it equally with all others').

Of course, the popular press coverage leaves out all of the nuance and qualification present in the academic article, but that is par for the course. The study's authors recognize, of course, that all the "psychopathic" respondents who chose the "utilitarian solution" are not necessarily well-read in Bentham or Mill, nor did they necessarily use utilitarian thinking at all. Nonetheless, the results are suggestive, and if it leads us to look at the differences between utilitarians and deontologists in a different way, it's all good--and right!

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" officially ends

Mark D. White

As this New York Times article celebrates, the U.S. military's "don't ask don't tell" policy is officially over. Military personnel who are gay or lesbian no longer have to suppress their identity and compromise their cherished virtue of honesty to serve their country.

(H/T: Erica Greider.)

Kantian ethics and economics in The Montréal Review

Mark D. White

A synopsis of my book Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character titled "Returning Dignity to Economics" appears in the new online issue of The Montréal Review, alongside articles by Patricia Churchland, Gilles Saint-Paul, and Eric MacGilvray. Let me share the final paragraph, which I think is relevant to much more than merely the topics in my book (and on which I plan to work more soon):

With its roots in classical utilitarianism, mainstream economics treats individuals merely as contributors to social welfare, with little consideration for persons qua individuals. Advances in psychology and neuroscience reinforce this, painting a picture of human beings as flawed machines that need correcting from those who "know better." These are all symptoms of a declining appreciation of autonomy and dignity which serves to diminish the moral status of the individual as well as ignore the benefits that a strong sense of the individual can bring to society as a whole. Integrating Kant's moral insights into economics can help preserve these ideals and ensure that when the good of society is promoted, it is not at the expense of the individuals that comprise it.

David Brooks on moral individualism: The false dichotomy lives on

Mark D. White

In today's New York Times, David Brooks writes in "If It Feels Right" about a recent study of young adults in America that reveals their incapacity to think in moral terms:

When asked to describe a moral dilemma they had faced, two-thirds of the young people either couldn’t answer the question or described problems that are not moral at all, like whether they could afford to rent a certain apartment or whether they had enough quarters to feed the meter at a parking spot.

“Not many of them have previously given much or any thought to many of the kinds of questions about morality that we asked,” Smith and his co-authors write. When asked about wrong or evil, they could generally agree that rape and murder are wrong. But, aside from these extreme cases, moral thinking didn’t enter the picture, even when considering things like drunken driving, cheating in school or cheating on a partner. “I don’t really deal with right and wrong that often,” is how one interviewee put it.

The default position, which most of them came back to again and again, is that moral choices are just a matter of individual taste. “It’s personal,” the respondents typically said. “It’s up to the individual. Who am I to say?”

This is horrible but hardly surprising--anyone who has taught an introductory ethics class knows that most college students enter the class woefully unprepared to discuss ethical issues in anything but the most uninformed and vague terms. This is not to say, however, that they have no moral sense; Intro to Ethics 101 is hardly required to be a good person, even if it does help one to talk about it. But the inability to discusss one's moral beliefs suggests that they may not be well considered or formed, and this is still of much concern.

Brooks chalks this up to moral individualism:

In most times and in most places, the group was seen to be the essential moral unit. A shared religion defined rules and practices. Cultures structured people’s imaginations and imposed moral disciplines. But now more people are led to assume that the free-floating individual is the essential moral unit. Morality was once revealed, inherited and shared, but now it’s thought of as something that emerges in the privacy of your own heart.

Unfortunately, Brooks is falling into the false dichotomy between individualism and sociality again. (See my earlier posts here and here for more on Brooks and this issue.) Morality doesn't have to come from society in order to focus on society. As Immanuel Kant wrote, the individual can and should realize, independently of external authority (though never completely separate from it), that he or she has duties and obligations to other people. The ideal source of a person's moral code is her own reason (not her "heart"), but the content of that code is nonetheless eminently social.

(As always, for more on the compatibility of individuality and sociality, see Chapter 3 on my book Kantian Ethics and Economics: Autonomy, Dignity, and Character.)

Should a sound economic theory be abandoned because it's implemented poorly?

Mark D. White

This Non Sequitur comic appeared in this morning's newspaper (and online):

Nonseq2011-09-01 (economists) 

Ha ha, we get it, economists are stubborn theorists who are holed up in their ivory towers with no sense of the real world, situational context, or empirical circumstances.

I almost tweeted this comic, as I do with two or three strips each morning I find worth tweeting (low bar there, I admit). But I thought twice and in the end decided not to, because I didn't want to endorse its caricature of economists. As with all caricature, it takes a kernel of truth and blows it out of proportion--very clever when done right, but it reflects poorly on the caricaturist when it's done wrong, as in this case.

In economics--especially macroeconomics--theories can rarely be disproven or discredited based on evidence, because the space between general theories and specific evidence is far too great and rife with complicating factors. If a general theory is implemented at a particular time, in particular circumstances, in a particular way, and in a particular political context, and it doesn't work, how do you know whether to blame the theory or any one of the myriad details that interfered with its operation? At the most, you can argue that the theory was not implemented properly because the particularities of the sitation were not accounted for properly. But you cannot conclude that the theory is incorrect until it fails in many situations, at many times, etc.

Of course, we can easily assume that the cartoon addresses the current economic malaise and/or attempts to remedy it (though the metaphor with getting people over a crevice grossly misrepresents the enormous complexity of the macroeconomy and the difficulty with applying any theories to it). People on each side of the economic argument over the role of the state can claim that their theory wasn't adequately tested: free-market economists can deny responsibility for the crisis because the housing and financial markets were hardly free from government interference, and Keynesians can deny responsibility for the continued downturn by saying that the stimulus just wasn't big enough.

In the end, theories in economics--especially macroeconomics--must be judged by their internal logic, given the tremendous (perhaps insurmountable) difficulty with relying on empirical evidence to judge them. Given the million things that could go wrong when implementing the best theory in an imperfect world--or the million things that could make even the worst theory look effective--evidence just doesn't cut it. What evidence can do, however, is help economists and policymakers to finetune the implementation of their theories.

In the end, poor results from implementing a logically sound theory do not discredit it--they just demand better implementation.