Rational Fools and Foolish Rationalists

by Spencer Slagowitz || October 23rd, 2017

There is this hilarious critique by Amartya Sen of neoclassical economics which pokes fun at the assumption that individuals are rational and that they have stable, known, and reasonable preferences. It comes in the form of a joke: an economist comes across a man trying to cut off his fingers with a pair of scissors. What does the economist do? Naturally, he offers the man a pair of sharper scissors.

The example is supposed to illustrate a readily evident folly of economics, one which Sen, to his credit, has explored in great depth. Obviously, our gut reaction is to stop the man from cutting off his fingers. Obviously, It seems, cutting off his fingers will bring him only misery, and the man is mistaken to believe or act otherwise. The takeaway is that economics needs to contend with the fact that is painfully clear in our daily lives—that we are not perfectly rational or egoistic individuals. They treat consumer preferences as known and stable, they presume individual preferences reflect known utility-functions and accurate estimates of predicted well-being.

We are profoundly foolish, we don’t know what we want or what will make us happy (indeed, a good portion of our lives is arguably an attempt to figure that out by trial and error), and even if we did know what constitutes our well-being, we sure as hell don’t know how to get there. The assumption of rational egoism at the heart of classical and neoclassic economics and other “neo-utilitarian/rational choice” approaches (to quote John Ruggie) to social science is misleading. This critique of the much-maligned Economic Man (often stylized as Homo Economics) is as old as the discipline it targets.

Our preferences and behavior are shaped by socialization and social embeddedness, instrumental adherence to social norms, our sense of identity (which is itself a product of socialization but could be bracketed off as a separate phenomenon), intergenerationally inherited values and culture, the peculiarities of our psychology, a lack of information in the case of “bounded rationality” and so on and so forth.

I. Ideal Types and the Pragmatic Defense of Egoistic Rationality

The response to this charge by modern positive economics is just as clichéd. Obviously, no one thinks about the world in the way that economists imagine. But the assumption of egoistic rationalism is necessary on pragmatic grounds—as Paul Krugman puts it, “abstraction, strategic simplification, is the only way we can impose some intellectual order on the complexity of economic life. And the assumption of rational behavior has been a particularly fruitful simplification.”

This argument was Milton Friedman’s central insight in his famous 1966 treatise, The Methodology of Positive Economics. Friedman goes as far as saying that, “Truly important and significant hypotheses will be found to have “assumptions” that are wildly inaccurate descriptive representations of reality, and, in general, the more significant the theory, the more unrealistic the assumptions (in this sense) [emphasis added].”

Friedman’s defense of the theoretical rational actor is strikingly similar to Max Weber’s justification for the use of “ideal types”—such as his three models of authority— to understand politics. In Weber’s schema, ideal types are “not a description of reality but [aim’ to give an unambiguous means of expression to such a description . . . An ideal type is formed by the one-sided accentuation of one or more points of view and by the synthesis of a great many diffuse, discrete, more or less present and occasionally absent concrete individual phenomena, which are arranged according to those one-sidedly emphasized viewpoints into a unified analytical construct.” In this way, we can see Friedman as positing homo economicus as an ideal type, a lens to understand the world.

Yet, while a convincing defense of the methodology of positive approaches, ‘the Economic Man” qua ideal type sheds little light on the application of the same assumptions to normative approaches and economic policymaking. In assessing whether to give Sen’s wannabe amputee a sharper pair of scissors, being able to predict the man’s behavior does not tell us whether we ought to intervene or whether his underlying preferences are justified.

II. Bioethics and Amputation

Surprisingly, Bioethics, a discipline far removed from traditional economics, has a lot to say about the analogy chosen by Amartya Sen. In particular, the fact that Sen takes it for granted that the desire to cut off one’s fingers is irrational, that the imagined individual’s amputation will not bring him well-being.

This brings us to Body Integrity Identity Disorder. Body Integrity Identity Disorder denotes a phenomenon wherein individuals experience a mismatch between their physical body and the subjective experience of their own body. Unlike other forms of asomatognosia and similar conditions in which there is a discrepancy between a person’s body and body image, those with BIID do not deny the existence or ownership of the limb in question; the alienation they experience appears somatic in nature. Consequently, individuals with BIID have pursued amputation as way to resolve the tension between physical embodiment and subjective perception.

An important point is that it is not that they hold the false belief that their limb is not theirs (as is seen in the case of somatoparaphrenia or certain cases of depersonalization) but that they vividly experience a sense of disconnect. This contrasts with disorders like Anorexia Nervosa in which there is a discrepancy between body image and physical embodiment but the anorexic is not aware of It. Tim Bayne and Neil Levy in their article on this topic “Amputees by Choice” make a distinction between the somatic/phenomenal component (what we feel and experience) and the doxastic (what we think and how we reason) component of body image, explaining that BIID keeps the latter component of their self-image intact. That is, in the case of BIID, patients recognize that this desire for amputation is “fundamentally irrational”, that there is no basis in reason for this belief. Nevertheless the recognition that BIID defies rational explanation does not alter the reality of what they experience. Moreover. while the sample size is small, an overwhelming majority those that go through with the amputation report substantially improved levels of well-being.

This problematizes Sen’s account, because presents a plausible case in which the man on the street trying to cut his arm off is actually pursuing his conception of the good. In fact, it is not “readily obvious” or self-evident that amputation of a limb will lead to decreased well-being, that it is a wrong path on the pursuit of happiness. A further critique of Sen’s assumptions can be found in the hedonistic adaptability literature, which shows that (and this is a slightly reductive account) that lottery winners a few months after winning were just as happy as paralyzed accident victims after a similar time since their accident.

This need not present a conundrum for the ideational critique of rational assumption in economics. Both can be correct. Rational conceptions of the good diverge and differ radically in society. We do not necessarily know what is good for other people. There is substantial statistical convergence with respect to major sources of well-being that largely emerge out of a shared biology and genetics, but that does not mean that there is an objective and absolute conception of the good life that we can appeal to in all cases. Or that there is a universal roadmap can be used to guide other individuals towards genuine well-being. Yet, at the same time it is clear that humans are foolish, that much of our behavior and beliefs are beautifully irrational, shaped by external and internal forces well out of our immediate control.

The paternalistic account of well-being isn’t correct but neither is the classical liberal one. Indeed, these two perspectives can be understood well as “ideal types.”—providing contrasting lenses that we can use to understand “reality”, but not capturing the entire picture on their own.

On Political Discourse…

Recently, I engaged in a discussion (one might say, argument) with a friend about the current state of popular discourse (Hey! That’s the name of this site!). Due to its obvious relationship to the title of this blog and because the discussion was interesting enough to be blog worthy, I decided to reproduce it in a post. The exchange has been lightly edited for clarity and whatnot.

So, my friend starts out by lamenting a perceived decline in and opposition to public political discussion that he alleges is taking place, and aims to explain what caused the phenomenon. He writes:

“The criticism against, and waning tendency of, writing (substantive) political Facebook statuses is a compelling example of the strength of Arendt’s thesis with regards to the idea of modern man as principally a “laboring animal.”

Particularly among college kids at elite institutions, there is a pathological insistence that their daily lives and social projects being necessarily productive. (Which is to say, having some kind of *use-value: college resumé, academic performance, campus credibility). So as a consequence, then, we’ve seen a movement against engaging in substantive political discourse on social media Indeed, most online debates are quite unproductive (in that they don’t ~produce~ some kind of good other than genuine human contact and the use of our logos).

Thus, we, as strong aspirants of the meritocracy, think that our intellectual faculties and capacity for language ought to be dedicated to more pragmatic ends: writing cover letters, sending out large swaths of emails to every conceivable PE group, think tank, and opportunity factory in the world.

In a truly political sphere, the use of language (and discourse) is an End in and of itself because it helps us engage with each other. At the point where that principle is no longer operative, at the point where we can’t just write Facebook statuses because they interest us as such, sharing our viewpoint, how can we actually do politics again?”

It’s particularly interesting to note the allusion to  “use-value”, which is a central component of Marx’s critique of political economy, and indeed, it appears that my friend was advancing a sort of Western-Marxist critique of modern society. As he later writes:

I think Lefebvre has a lot to say about the collision between market economy and ordinary social relationships. And how capitalism has to justify itself even in the parts of our lives that, until modernity, has avoided the problem of labor.

It’s, in many ways, a classic leftist critique of modernity.  Instead of engaging in political discussion as a natural function of human behavior, the “demands of modern and, importantly, capitalist society (evidenced by the allusion to use value) pushes us to do “productive” tasks like academic performance and resumé writing in lieu of unproductive tasks like political discussion for its own sake. These “productive” tasks either crowd out unproductive tasks or the general ideology of capitalist instrumentalism discourages participation in ‘unproductive activities.’ (I likely butchered the theory, but the general argument is summarized there.)

However, I think this argument is wrong on numerous grounds.

Firstly, I don’t think there ever was a point in time where there was widespread discussion of politics for the sake of politics to the degree alluded to. I do not believe there has never been a time where the populace at large engaged in intellectual political discussion for the sake of that discussion. We can romanticize a pursuit for politics for its own sake, but insofar as it has been realized in a robust manner, it is hard to turn this into a criticism of capitalism qua ideology. Even at the height of Enlightenment salon culture, discussion only occurred between intellectual and cultural elite. During the era of Athenian/Macedonian hegemony, the romanticized description of  political discussion of the Greeks strikes me as ahistorical, and, in actuality, reserved to the elite in society.

However, amongst college students and those interested in intellectual inquiry there is constant discussion of politics, as is wont to occur in collegiate settings. So let us consider this argument in the context of this very specific subset of individuals. Has political discussion truly declined amongst our generation? I would first note that I’ve never seen more interest in politics and political discussion until now. Additionally, I challenge that interest in political discussion has meaningfully declined. Though anecdotal, I’ve never seen a point in time in which public discourse about politics (measured in Facebook posts and general remarks) has been so widespread. During the healthcare debate, everyone added their 2 cents, and Trump’s presidency has provoked more political discussions than I could count.

But I am sympathetic to the related claim that people are beginning to tire of political discussion, or that, at the very least, politician discussion could be less robust than it could have been in the counterfactual.

As a side note: I don’t think that this shift away from political discussion for the sake of political discussion is caused by a focus on “productive activities” qua economic production. The two are not mutually exclusive, really, and the vast majority of individuals that I know, aren’t spending the time that could be spent in the noble employ of discourse (as you describe it) on these “productive activities.” I would instead suggest that they are spending their time in dramatically unproductive ways. And it is undeniable that procrastination is rampant.

Regardless, to return to the idea that people are tiring of political discourse. If the cause is not the pursuit of productive activities that in turn crowds out opportunities for discussion, it could be the second causal mechanism: that since we’ve deemed these activities unproductive, we eschew them. But I think that’s wrong as well. You specify how “unproductive” discussion deters people from discussion. Political discussion does not change hears and minds and is not instrumental in reaching some sort of consensus on “the truth”, so we reject it. Yet, my friend conflates “productivity” in this case with use-value. If the argument is that discourse has declined because people do not find it productive, and you mistake what people mean by productivity in this regard. It is not that individuals lament that discussion does not produce some economic value but that it is generally unfulfilling and toxic. Perhaps though, one might point out that it is disappointing that we *must* justify discourse as producing some good, economic or otherwise. An argument might be that a cultural obsession with justifying everything according to some “rational” or consequentialist standard devalues activities like discourse which should instead be seen as a natural human activity. In later comments, my friend advances that engaging with eachother through political discussion should be an inherently-fulfilling enterprise. Yet, in the status quo, political discussion is seen as productive even if it does not prove instrumental towards acquiring some specific ends unrelated to engagement for the sake of engagement. Hostile discussion of emotionally loaded issues is psychologically draining and exhausting; instead of helping us to engage with each-other better and understand each-other, we engage with eachother worse. Instead of bridging social divisions , discourse worsens them. Instead of broadening our own horizons and making our thinking more rich, they are deleterious to our political thought prompting us to label potentially legitimate alternative views as antagonistic.

Lastly, as a general note of discussion, I think Richard Rorty and Alistair McIntyre are much more useful in talking about than Lefebvre or the Marxist tradition he represents for that matter. I don’t generally buy that we engage in an instrumentalist analysis (explicitly or implicitly) of political discussion, or even one that privileges economic goods above all else. Its inconsistent with the way I experience thinking about discussion and the behavior of others. While we often might put off discussion if we have a lot of work to do, with the remark, “I can’t, I have to do x, y, or z,” discussion is not consciously entered into amongst participants after reasoned analysis, it usually arises through exogenous provocation, a reaction to the days affairs provoked by a preexisting desire to talk about the topic at hand. Rather, I think Rorty and McIntyre’s related accounts of what has gone wrong with political discussion provides a better perspective. As I understand, they claim that as creatures/products of the enlightenment, we have been trained to accept that there are right answers to all of our political questions, and that political debate can be resolved one way or another. When we are unable to do so, we enter this deeply unsatisfying emotivist world in which we simply address arguments to each other that express our subjective beliefs, rather than making claims as to an objective truth applicable to all. This leads to a nihilistic outlook and general meaninglessness. While I won’t go as far to endorse their explanation of why this occurs (they believe that settling these debates satisfactorily is impossible because foundationalism is impossible). It is true, I believe, that we have certain expectations about arguments and discussion in society (most importantly, that disagreement will and can be resolved), and when those expectations are not fulfilled (for any reason, for example due to cognitive bias), it makes us deeply unsatisfied. Nevertheless, I think this only goes so far in explaining why we have political discussion. As noted previously, I believe discussion can be meaningful to us even if we don’t reach some sort of “truth” or consensus, so this is only part of the story, at most.

 

 

Bridging the Fundamental Moral Divide on Health Care

The name of this blog is Popular Discourse, so perhaps it is appropriate to talk about the current state of public discourse around healthcare. Unless you have been living under a rock, you would know that following the resuscitation of the American Health Care Act (The GOP’s Obamacare replacement bill) and its subsequent passage in the House of Representatives, the Senate crafted (in much secrecy) its own bill. One that has been met with much outrage and a vociferous debate over the future of healthcare in this country.What is truly interesting about this public conservation is how, unlike many other political issues, where disagreement in driven primarily by difference in policy (how to accomplish certain goals, how to infer political priorities from broader shared values and how to weight those priorities), the health care debate is dominated by a profound disagreement on values. Nothing better showcases this phenomenon than the ideological clash between those who believe that healthcare is a right and those that believe healthcare is a privilege. The debate is characterized by participants angrily announcing their views at each other, asserting their respective claims. Both parties believe strongly in the indisputable rightness of their central claim, and in the incoherence of the other’s beliefs. So, what we’ve seen is a shouting match masquerading as a discussion: It’s conducted under the pretense of argument, it follows the communicative rituals and rules we use aiming to convince others, and we argue about health care as if there was an answer to this crucial political question that would appeal to the premises of both ideological factions. Though, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t actually expect that those who disagree with us will ever concede. We fail to recognize the central fact that, what makes this disagreement so fundamental, is that both sides are operating on completely different value systems.

A Theory of Fundamental Political Disagreements

It is this dynamic which prompted an incredibly poignant Huffington Post piece, aptly titled, “I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” The article’s subtitle further captures the contours of our current healthcare debate, “Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society.” This is a stunning but accurate observation, one with which I agree strongly.

We each have been raised in different environments, and within different institutions. Moreover, we each have had certain values and moral attitudes instilled in us. We have internalized them and have invested these moral concepts with inherent emotional worth. They, in turn, shape the moral emotions we feel and our behavior towards others. When the author laments how she “doesn’t know to convince someone how to experience the basic human emotion of empathy,” she’s implicitly addressing how our internalized moral beliefs shape the literal contours of our world, the emotional phenomena we experience. However, simply because our account of moral emotions is subjectivist, does not mean we have to resign ourselves to an emotivist world of moral relativism. On the contrary, only by exploring the basis and structure of this philosophical disagreement can we actually have a serious conversation about what system of health care is desirable.  

To many, the idea that emotions are mutable and (somewhat) non-universal is alien. So it is probably worth it to flesh out this idea further, as it is central to my claim that our culture shapes our political values. As NPR’s Rebecca Hersher puts it, “emotions, the classic thinking goes, are innate, basic parts of our humanity. We are born with them, and when things happen to us, our emotions wash over us.” However, this view is flawed. We experience emotions as exogenous, we feel like  we have no control over. Sometimes we think of them as fixed reaction to a certain stimuli, yet as Professor Lisa Feldman Barrett puts it, in the same article, “But the problem with [the common wisdom] is that the data don’t support [it]. There’s a lot of evidence which challenges this view from every domain of science that’s ever studied it.” NPR’s phenomenal Invisibilia podcast expands upon this idea further, explaining that for every one of the complex emotions we’ve come to take as fixed in the West, there is a culture around the world which simply does not experience it. Additionally, there are emotions in other cultures which do not have Western equivalents. Parts of emotion are very clearly universal, but it is important to acknowledge how culturally and socially dependent they are. Man is both species and species-being.

This socially constructed character of emotion, and especially moral emotion, helps to articulate a theory of how fundamental political difference arise. Institutional and cultural differences lead to different moral emotions, attitudes, and behaviors and thus different philosophical views. This theory finds further support in the research of quasi-philosopher and social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. According to Haidt’s social intuitionism, moral emotions precede moral judgements, meaning that moral judgements are primarily intuitive and reasoning is often (and completely unconsciously) a retroactive rationalization of those intuitions. To quote his seminal article,  “The Emotional Dog and Its Rational Tail:A Social Intuitionist Approach to Moral Judgment.”:

“The cognitive revolution had opened up  new  ways  of  thinking  about  morality  and moral development, and it was surely an advance to  think  about  moral  judgment  as  a  form  of information processing. But times have changed. Now  we  know  (again)  that  most  of  cognition occurs automatically and outside of consciousness (Bargh & Chartrand, 1999) and that people  cannot  tell  us  how  they  really  reached  a judgment  (Nisbett  &  Wilson,  1977)…The time may be right, therefore, to take another look at Hume’s perverse thesis: that moral emotions and intuitions drive moral reasoning.”

Out of this moral theory, grew the Moral Foundations Theory, which aimed to, among other things, describe how social values and cultural differences drive political differences. In the Vox article, “Donald Trump supporters think about morality differently than other voters. Here’s how,” Haidt draws upon social psychology to explain how differences in regional culture determined support for different political candidates in the 2016 election. The results are illuminating and demonstrate how our particular cultures have a  direct bearing on our politics. This idea is supported by long-standing political science.  To quote one of my Comparative Political Systems textbooks, Thomas F Remington’s Politics in Russia, which puts it far better than I ever could:

“The patterns of behavior that influence how government operates are established through…channels of association…outside the government sphere…Citizens are less likely to cooperate in political cultures that harbor mistrust since they believe that combining for the common good is a sucker’s game…where people discount the common interest in favor of private benefit, government is likelier to be both more oppressive and more corrupt. Therefore in studying politics, we need to look both at people’s beliefs about government and at their expectations about social life more generally.”

I would claim that our moral beliefs about how to treat each other within our communities have a direct bearing on how we approach and think about political issues. It has special bearing on what teleological scheme we adopt (read: what goals we pursue). This, as many people will recognize, is pretty obvious. If you’ve been taught that it is good to help groups and individuals who have been marginalized, your politics will reflect it (you will feel bad when marginalized groups are mistreated). This is to suggest that the division we make between our mundane social interactions and politics, when we categorize them as different, is false.

This has a direct bearing on the specific issue of health care. Liberals and progressives believe that being a good person and member of society means having empathy for one another, caring for the disadvantaged, and striving for justice as fairness. While, on the other hand, conservatives (at least with regards to health care) privilege individual responsibility and autonomy, and thus believe that only negative rights deserve to be considered proper rights (à la Isaiah Berlin). As a consequence, liberals believe that it is prima facie unjust for someone to suffer because they could not afford health care. While, generally, conservative believe that health care ought to be treated like car insurance, that providing healthcare to the poor will engender lethargy and that the notion that health care is a right in anathema to the idea of ‘rights’ properly considered in the negative sense. These views are direct consequences of different starting positions.

Not All Values are Created Equal

Thus far I’ve advanced a theory of deep political disagreement: differences in culture and in upbringing result in differences in internalized moral emotions and attitudes. Which, in turn, have a direct bearing on the political values, we place a premium on. However, this definitely does not mean that we must surrender to the hopeless ennui of moral relativism. Certain cultural practices and social environments are better than others. For example, (and quite obviously) certain cultural norms have historically legitimized practices, which would be considered inhumane and horrendous by modern standards. Furthermore, I genuinely believe that we are best served by a society in which we have empathy for one another and community members strive for the common good. Not only does such an environment promote social trust and help facilitate collective action (and all the rewards we reap from that), insofar as we are embedded in dense social networks already, cultural practices which encourage social cooperation benefit all members of society; indeed, our welfare depends on both ourselves and on the structure of society as a whole.

Regardless of my personal views, we need to have this conversation over values, whether in the terms employed above or on different philosophical grounds. Simply acknowledging that we are divided as a nation, as a society, as an imagined community, does not help to fix that gap, one which grows every day. As detailed by Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, an incredible treatise on inequality among other topics, we have a tendency to to divide ourselves up socially and geographically into ideological tribes. As David Brooks, the conservative New York Times columnist, puts it, “America is a country in which privileged people suffer from their own characteristic forms of self-indulgence: the tendency to self-segregate.” We are becoming a less coherent nation, and to our detriment. But, perhaps acknowledging the deep roots of our philosophical polarization will help us resolve it, and help us have an honest conversation about what values we want our society to cherish and promote.

Memories Maketh Man

list-820965_1280Something that I’ve struggled with throughout my seemingly eternal seventeen years of living has been the idea of missing someone. When you miss someone, your whole life is thrown out of whack. You start seeing that person in every part of your life, even those where that person normally wouldn’t be found, even in your thoughts. But these memories, these mental images, are never accurate. Personally, I always forget about the little flaws and sometimes even the big ones, and, on seeing this person again, I’m always let down. That’s because I didn’t actually miss them. I missed the idea of them; I missed the construct of that person with which my mind had replaced their reality. In fact, if I could compare my memories, as I have them now, to the actual events that occurred, I’m perfectly confident that not a single memory would be entirely accurate. As such, are any memories real? I would say no. This school of thought brings up an interesting point. I believe that each person is defined by their memories, and if any of my memories were different, the bad ones or the good ones, I would be a completely different person from who I am today. From that perspective, it would seem as if the things that happen to you dictate the person you become, but that’s not what I believe. I am confident that, since none of your memories are 100% accurate you are actually changing who you are and who you will become by the standard deviation of the incongruity of your memories. I’d go so far as to say that your own subconscious bias is what colors your memories and thus defines you as a person; as such, you define yourself. Yes, that is a whole bunch of faux-psychological poppycock, but it leads me to ask: what factors go into the discoloration of your memories?