Psychological Foundations for Morality: Some Problems

In my previous post, I made a rather bold proposition: maybe our moral beliefs can be based on notions of mental health. The sound-bite version of this was:

Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral.

I then solicited feedback in hopes of finding the most glaring holes in my idea. That feedback came in the form of comments under the post, as well as private conversations with my fellow Sweet-Talkers.

In this post, I’d like to summarize that feedback in hopes of highlighting what many perceived to be the major weaknesses of the idea. I’ll defer my own responses, where applicable, to a later post.

Morality Is Not An Individual Phenomenon

One of the most interesting (to me) criticisms I received came once again from Samuel Hammond, who not only agreed with the Mises passage I quoted, but took the idea even further.

My understanding of his view (i.e. my words, not his) is that morality is basically only ever a social question. In other words, we can talk about character development or mental health from an individual perspective, and raise all sorts of interesting points. However, since morality is only an assessment of the extent to which a given action is “pro-social,” such individual considerations are not questions of morality. They might be interesting. They might be worthy of examination. But since morality itself is a social question, individual choices can’t really be called “moral” or “immoral” except in reference to how those actions relate to the society in which they’re made.

Truth be told, if this criticism is true, then it is indeed devastating to my idea. If morality really is a purely social construct, then when one finds oneself at odds with society, I was right to have written, “Better luck next social order.”

Psychology Is Subjective

Several objections were raised that I might broadly classify as complaints that psychology, being highly subjective in a number of ways, cannot objectively solve moral problems.

One version of this objection, quite well articulated by Andrew, highlighted the fact that behaviors and mindsets have been considered mental illnesses at one point in time and completely normal and healthy at other points in time. In other words, “what is and is not considered a mental illness changes depending on the culture.” One very obvious example is homosexuality, but perhaps a less-obvious and more powerful example is autism. In psychology’s infancy, many autistic people were simply considered invalids, or mentally deranged. Today, however, we know them to be simply atypical, but fully capable of leading happy, mentally healthy lives as valued – often times superior – contributors to human society. Under the argument that mental illness classifications change radically over time, isn’t psychology poorly equipped to serve as a foundation for moral choices? Wouldn’t it have been wrong in the year 1850 to call an autistic person immoral for reasons of her mental health classification under the prevailing psychological theories of the times?

To complicate matters further, psychology isn’t just subjective across cultures, it’s also subjective within them. Another point Andrew raises is that the moral conclusions of a true sociopath will differ radically from those of a “normal” person. (See my comment to Andrew for a brief answer to the question of sociopathy.) Suppose we are to analyze the morality of a malignant narcissist. Such a person can feel no remorse and no empathy for other human beings, and consequently derives pleasure from taking advantage of and/or abusing others. If “mentally healthy” is to mean “baseline emotional equilibrium for the individual,” then such a person might feel morally entitled to engage in behaviors that the rest of us would consider obviously abhorrent. How, then, might psychology be able to answer that malignant narcissist’s moral justifications?

It would be great if the complications ended there, but in fact they get worse. The line between “mentally healthy behavior” and “mentally unhealthy behavior” isn’t even all that well-defined for any given individual. As in the Paradox of the Heap, a patient who slips into major depresssive disorder from a previous state of “mere” profound grief doesn’t suddenly become majorly depressed as a matter of 1, 2, 3, go! It is a gradual process in which the extremes are easily identified, but for which there is no one, defining moment that delineates between mental health and mental illness. And so it goes for other kinds of patient experiences as well. If lines can be so fuzzy for an individual in a single experience, how could we ever hope to delineate concrete moral precepts from sets of experience that have absolutely no perceptible demarcation?

Psychology Is Corruptible

Another powerful criticism against the notion of basing our morality on psychology is that psychology itself can be, and has been corrupted. I received a lot of examples of this this kind.

Andrew worried that my proposal runs the risk of “pathologizing moral disagreements,” and to buttress his case, he pointed out that Soviet dissidents were often psychologically “determined” to be unfit, and institutionalized. He also pointed out quasi-psychological theories exemplified by Liberalism is a Mental Disorder and The Reactionary Mind, both of which seek to dismiss leftist and rightist political ideologies as psychological problems rather than valid, informed, principled disagreements.

Adam, for his part, pointed to the experiences of the transgendered, namely Dierdre McCloskey and her experience being forcibly institutionalized by her own sister, a psychologist. In that case, it may genuinely have been true that McCloskey’s sister believed that Dierdre needed to be institutionalized, and yet when we take a step back and assess the matter more stoically (and within the context of a more modern culture), the reaction seems both heinous and extreme. That experience echoes the well-documented cases of homosexuals subjected to shock therapy in order to “fix” their homosexuality, and of all manner of torture our society has unfairly unleashed against innocent people whose only real “crime” is deviation from the norm.

If Psychology Is Founded On Moral Premises (Even Partially), Then My Proposition Assumes The Consequent

Paul offered what I thought was a rather novel criticism. He says, “[P]sychology… rests on certain axioms or assumptions. These axioms touch on moral topics. So it’s tricky to make psychology the singular foundation of morality.”

Restating this position in slightly different terms, if morality is logically prior to the axioms of psychology, then employing psychology as a foundation for morality is probably impossible. At the very least, any morality contained in the foundations of psychology will necessarily end up in our moral foundations, not because the evidence pointed that way, but because the way we have chosen to investigate the evidence can only ever perceive those moral precepts, and never contradict them.

This is a bigger problem than it first appears, and one that I will never likely solve. This is a foundational question about the philosophy of science, not really even unique to psychology specifically. How can a human mind seek to understand itself in objective terms? How can three-dimensional physical beings ever hope to understand the physics of an M-dimensional universe?

I must quickly and readily acknowledge my inability to respond to this question. It is much bigger than the present discussion, and indeed one of the biggest problems that exist in philosophy.

Conclusion

While I don’t agree with all of the criticisms above, I nonetheless hope I have done an adequate job in summarizing them in a way that makes them seem not only plausible, but also compelling. My objective here was to poke serious holes in my own idea, and where possible, I tried to elaborate on the ideas expressed by others in order to make their points even stronger than they were in the context of off-the-cuff, casual conversation.

If you, the reader, are now in serious doubt of my original proposal after having read the above, then I can consider my endeavor a success.

I can only hope that any subsequent response I provide to these concerns is equally successful.

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Toward A Better Foundation For Morality

In Liberalism: In The Classical Tradition, Ludwig von Mises writes, “Everything that serves to preserve the social order is moral; everything that is detrimental to it is immoral.” For my money, this represents the clearest, most concise way to frame the notion of of morality as a social institution.

Recently, fellow Sweet Talker Samuel Hammond elaborated a bit:

For my part, I think ethics lies not in formally consistent logical arguments, but the public recognition of norms. Where norms vary so does public reason. To the extent that some norms are more universal than others, it’s because discourse and other cultural evolutionary biases create normative convergence. Those convergent forces trace an outline of a more general logic behind certain norns that you can call trancendental, in the sense of being abstracted from human particularity.

I don’t know the extent to which Samuel agrees with Mises, but his statements seemed consistent with the “liberal-subjectivist” interpretation of morality Mises seemed to describe in his oeuvre. In short, our notions of right and wrong change with the times, and with the circumstances. Something once considered immoral is today anything but (think casual sex); something once considered common practice is now considered utterly heinous (think child brides). Morality seems to flex and change with the society experiencing it, at least according to Mises’ view. And even if Hammond himself looks at ethics differently, it’s not controversial to suggest that what I’ve just described is a view widely held by many people of many different political and philosophical persuasions.

Still, problems arise with this point of view. Here’s a big one, for example: Suppose you were a slave in 19th-Century America. Then, for you, your position in society and society’s treatment of you is perfectly ethical – even though you know quite rationally and reasonably that this cannot be the case.

For an ethicist like Mises, slavery is perfectly ethical until the social order evolves; then, we need to change the ethics to serve the new social order. If the new social order happens to enslave you, well, that’s just tough cookies. Better luck next social order; today, your beliefs about human equality are immoral.

Subjective Ethics: Alternatives To

I’ll readily admit my bias here: I don’t think a world in which social orders allow us to enslave each other until such time as a new social order comes along is a particularly ethical world. I have a bias in favor of liberating the enslaved and oppressed. I think human beings are capable of a better system of ethics. Unfortunately, many of the alternatives pose problems of their own.

One alternative, for example, is deontological decree, i.e. the word of god. The appeal here is obvious: god is perfect, surely his system of ethics is a pretty good one. But deontology poses two main problems for people like me.

The first is that, if I don’t believe in the particular god making the decree, then for me the system is identical to the “liberal-subjectivist” scenario described above. In other words, if your god happens to decree that my daughter can be made a child bride, and I object, that’s just too bad for her and me. To object is to contradict god’s will, and only evil (unethical) people do that.

The second problem with deontology is that, as a purely empirical matter, it tends to be absolutely miserable in practice, leading to ethical catastrophes like the Holocaust, the Inquisition, the Taliban, “honor” killings, caste systems, and so on. Deontology is so atrocious in practice that almost no one thinks it’s a good idea anymore, not even most theists.

Another possibility is utilitarianism, a favorite among rational types and academics. Calculating the choice that results in the most net total (subjective) happiness is an attractive proposition because it gives us a way to apply objective thinking (economic models and the like) to legitimately subjective questions. It’s a democratic approach to ethical problems. Here again, however, I spot two primary problems.

The first I shall illustrate by repeating an example I read in Steven Landsburg’s excellent book, The Big Questions. While he tells it better than I do, the example in my words goes something like this: Suppose everyone in the entire world were experiencing a dull but perpetual headache which could, for some strange reason, be stopped by killing a single innocent man. According to Landsburg and most other utilitarians, unless that man happens to be a Utility Monster, the right ethical choice is to kill one man in order to spare the rest of the world a mild headache. The moral of the story is: Don’t be the guy.

Still not convinced? Then what if I called that one guy “the guy with slightly darker skin and a comparative advantage in picking cotton?”

Aha, there it is. We’re back to the same scenario I laid out at the outset of this blog post. If your utility happens to be in the minority, too bad for you. Under utilitarianism, the enslavement or murder of any person y is theoretically justifiable, so long as we can buttress the case with a utility function U = ∑(xi,y) for sufficiently large i.

Virtue Ethics, a favorite among Sweet Talkers – myself included – seems to work really well on an individual level, because it affords the moral agent a means by which to reason through the ethical ramifications of a particular dilemma and arrive at a strong conclusion that reflects the totality of one’s moral code.

Adam highlighted a couple of substantial problems in a previous post:

Like Aristotle, and Julia Annas and Daniel Russell, I think that you must grasp the reasons in order to become fully virtuous. Unlike them, I think a substantial part of this understanding—the largest part in fact—is tacit, rather than explicit. This does not mean they are completely inexplicable; it’s just that people vary in their ability to articulate their reasons, and it has not been my experience that eloquence and clearness of explicit thought go hand in hand with goodness. Often such people are able to talk themselves into perfectly ridiculous perspectives, or worse. The USSR and Maoist China were creations of highly educated people capable of being very articulate about their reasons, and equally capable of filling mass graves with the bodies of the innocent dead.

It is the rightness of the reasons, and the responsiveness to them, that matters. The ability to explain and defend them is absolutely a valuable quality, and especially crucial in a liberal democracy where talk and persuasion are paramount. But that does not detract from the fact that many truly good people are bad at rhetoric, and many skilled in that art are quite rotten.

So, one weakness of virtue ethics is that it means our moral worth might depend on our ability to rationalize our virtue rhetorically. Anything goes as long as we can make a good argument for it, nothing is moral unless it can be argued-for. Then, another weakness is that, in a liberal democracy, we still end up putting it up to a majoritarian vote. The result is… yep, the same scenario I described at the outset of this blog post.

A New (?) Proposal For What Makes Something Moral

Is there any better standard upon which to found our systems of ethics, something that performs a little better than the ones I’ve described thus far?

I think I might have one: mental health. Actions that serve to augment or support the mental health of moral agents are moral, actions that serve to diminish their mental health are immoral, and actions that have no impact on mental health are morally neutral. Applying this evaluative criterion to moral decision-making seems to yield consistently good results.

For example, slavery is universally bad for every society in every time period, since no one could argue that being enslaved results in anything other than a mental health tragedy for the victim; furthermore, I could easily make the case that slave-ownership is corrosive to the mental health of the owner, too. The fact that slavery fails my moral test for both the victim and the perpetrator, by their own internal and subjective standards is a major advantage, to put it lightly.

The test performs equally well for minor ethical dilemmas. For example, lying is shown to be wrong not just because “society deems it so,” nor because “honesty serves the greatest good for the greatest number,” nor even because honesty is virtuous. Rather, lying is immoral because your life will be miserable if people don’t trust you, you won’t be able to live with yourself if you consistently betray the trust of others, and everyone else will be miserable, too. As for “white lies,” the mental health test shows us that uncouthly stating whatever you’re thinking in the name of total honesty is closer to a pathology than a virtue; if you can’t be sensitive to others’ feelings while telling the truth, then you might need to improve your mental health.

This seems intuitively true to just about everyone. On some level, we all know that it is only very weird people or people in a state of dire mental health who give no consideration to the feelings of others, and merely robotically act in a prescriptively “moral” fashion.

At the same time, the mental health test arms us against the prevailing attitudes of an oppressive mob. Society at large might tell you that it’s moral to force you to marry an old man or a first cousin – but if you know that it’s wrong for your mental health, then you have the moral authority to say “No!” even in the face of unanimous peer pressure. Better a mentally healthy social outcast – maybe even better a dead dissident – than a crazed or broken slave. Furthermore, a pervasive sense of conformism is itself mentally unhealthy, and going along with the crowd when one’s sense of morals suggests otherwise is a prime example of why conformism can be a big problem. And yes, contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism is also problematic. So, the key question, the one that provides clear moral guidance both for the contrarian and the pushover is, “Is this good or bad for mental health?”

One conclusion that arises is that a compromised state of mental health, no matter what the reason, compromises our ability to make good moral decisions. This, too, seems to make intuitive sense: soldiers in a war zone have a reduced ability to make the same kinds of moral decisions that they do during peace time; someone experiencing profound grief will often neglect her loved ones; and so on. This underscores the importance of mental health, as it might be integral to our ability to be good people.

Conclusion

Part of my reason for writing this post is because I’m hoping for feedback. This idea is relatively new to me, and I’m still not totally sold on it. It seems robust, but I feel as though I might be missing something important – possibly a few things. This notion does tend to put me at odds with people who would ordinarily agree with me on some significant moral issues. That is sufficient to cast doubt on the idea. At the same time, the more I evaluate it myself, the stronger the idea appeals to me.

So maybe I need help spotting my errors. If you happen to notice something I’ve missed, please do leave a comment.

 

The Futility of Policy

If you are fan of anything sportsing, you know the anxiety of blown officiating calls, but lately, the agony of video replay has become unbearable, a system which satisfies only a vocal party within the sportsing community affectionately known as the “Get It Right Crowd” (GIRC). These nerds will rest at nothing to establish a policy or series of policies or layers of policies to somehow ensure sportsing fans that the sportsing officiating calls are regulated and correct, and corrected if they are not correct on the field.

The GIRC has at least accomplished hours and hours of interesting philoso-talk on Local Sports Talk Radio. Alas, the assumption is that officiating calls are always correctable.

In the sportsing called “The NFL” there is a boiling controversy over the application of the definition of a “football catch.” Now, to the casual observer, this may seem like a no-brainer. To wit: a receiver “catches” the “football.” That is a football catch.

But, no.  The policy, or “rulebook,” as it were, has a strict definition of what a “football catch” might actually be. It is a lengthy definition, with a main paragraph and many sub-paragraphs, each of which deal in minutiae, and each of which must be memorized by game officials, and which, in the rigors of a contact sportsing event, must be expertly and thoroughly applied at an instant.

Therefore, it has come to be expected that game officials apply the policy incorrectly. After all, they’re only human, and, in the NFL, they’re quasi-professional. Many millions of dollars hang on their competence, both in player salaries and in gambling money.

To resolve this given human propensity to actually err, a video replay system has been devised. It seems easy enough: if there is a question about the application of the policy, one simply projects a video of the play in question onto a large-screen, high-definition television set, and everyone has the luxury of studying the question from very many different angles at different speeds with as many repetitions as is desired, that is, until the officiating crew is satisfied that they have, indeed, the right application of the policy to the play in question.

In practice, however, there has been very little satisfaction within the sportsing community concerning this system to regulate and correct application of policy. The officials are making worse applications in the instant, and they are increasingly unable to correct themselves with video replay. So far, recriminations have flown against incompetence in officiating as a quasi-profession, but the same phenomenon is occurring in sportsing where the officials are full-time professionals. Recriminations have also flown against the video replay system, but the only solution there seems to include outrageous complexity, which everyone, even The GIRC, recognizes as detrimental to the playing of the game.

In my opinion, which I will label “obviously,” it is the policy itself. The policy is regulating that which cannot be regulated. A “football catch” is known only until it is atomized. After it is atomized, in an effort to define its characteristics and elements, no one knows with any confidence what a “football catch” might actually be.

The solution, then, is quite clear: jettison The GIRC altogether. Remove the policy of “football catch” from the rule book. Remove video review systems. Place officials who have been examined for competency into a properly defined role as judges, not as regulators or enforcers, except where necessary. Periodically grade the judges according to their performance in the instant, not according to camera angles or variable speeds of the videos. Assess, revisit, reassess.

Good men will make good judges, and good judges will make good men. When we have reestablished this principle, then sportsing events will become enjoyable again, or, at least in Buffalo, NY, less agonizing.

replay booth

The Private Life is Dead In New York State

It seems like only yesterday I went to the marketplace to pick a health insurance plan that was right for me and my family. Already, it was tricky because New York State had some cockamamie law in place that prevented insurance companies from underselling a certain level-benefit, in order to not compete against the state subsidized “Healthy NY” program, which was designed, in effect, for pregnant teenagers in New York City and Albany.

Despite that, I remember the good ole days, when I had, I think, nine different plans to choose from. Even though I am a sole proprietor, I was able to join a group through the chamber of commerce, which spread morbidity risk, you see, lowering costs.

The giant gavel of Spring 2010 struck. Almost immediately, cost increases accelerated until, after a few short years, the plans were double in price. Last year, the law forced me out of my group because I am a sole proprietor. I joined the New York State co-op because it had the most affordable plan. The premiums were somewhat less than before, but the deductible was sky-high, and the care was less amenable to my needs.

In other words, instead of a suite of plans to choose from, I was forced into one. I mean, I could conceivably have chosen a different plan, but the price was, shall we say, prohibitive.

I just received a letter from the co-op announcing that the New York State Insurance Commission is forcing them to close at the end of November 2015, and that I should look for a new plan for December of 2015 before I go through the dreaded Exchange to pick a plan for 2016. Something about a $250 million debt and sick people in Upstate New York. I don’t live in Upstate New York. I live in Western New York.

What a disaster.

How did this happen? Why can’t I just go get health care and pay for it myself? Why can’t I negotiate with an insurance company for a plan that suits my family’s needs? I was doing just fine in the cold, cruel, unprotected marketplace before. What’s going on?

Why bother? Just tell me where to sign. Here, take my stuff. What do you want me to do? Just tell me, OK? I’m exhausted. I give up. Which line do I shuffle toward? Should I look you in the eyes, in make-believe fashion, or should I keep my eyes to the ground like a good little citizen?

Just to spell it out so there’s no misunderstanding: I’m mourning the state’s subsuming a large chunk of my manhood unto itself.

Exemptions, ladies and gentlemen, did not apply to the individual market, for obvious political reasons. How much longer are those exemptions from which you currently benefit going to hold back the tides of the marketplace?

No worries, though, my friends. Pretty soon, the metric for health care will be reduced to one thing: not customer satisfaction, not affordability, not availability, not quality, but efficiency.

And it will be efficient.

serf and lord

Scouting With Rafe

Hunting season commences on October 1 this year, for bowhunters, so Rafe and I went out one last time this weekend to check our stands for integrity. One in three hunters will experience a fall in their careers, so we are extra-diligent toward the end of remaining in the 66.6%. Thank God we’re in a Rational Age; otherwise, being in that number would surely dampen the celebration when we go marching in.

You have to understand: when I call Rafe “my friend,” I mean it only in the sense that he has a tremendous deer population on his property, and I’m kind to him in many ways so that he lets me hunt on his property. He has many small mannerisms and annoyances which prevent true friendship from developing.

For example: we were sitting together in our double buddy, which is set over the premier deer-path crossroads, as it were, where the deer are coming in from all points feeding, going toward easy water, then to all points bedding. We were pointing out to each other some of the new features another year has brought to the immediate surroundings, waiting to actually see some deer, when he suddenly asked, “Why do we drive on the right side of the road?”

“I dunno,” I said. “Convention? In Australia they drive on the left side of the road.”

“Do they?” he asked. “Is that why water spins the other way ’round when it goes down the toilet?”

“No,” I said. “It spins the other way ’round when it goes down the toilet because the moon goes around the earth the other way ’round in the Southern Hemisphere. Like a mirror image of the Northern Hemisphere.”

“No, seriously,” he said. “Isn’t there some sort of logic to the convention of driving on one side or t’other?”

“Even if there once had been, the logic is meaningless now,” I replied.

“Ah!” he exclaimed, which ruined any hope of seeing deer before sunset, and possibly changed their patterns forever. “This is what I was talking about last time, how everything is relative.”

“But it has to be relative to something.” I caught myself. I saw where he was going, but it was too late.

“So by convention, by an organic, common agreement, we drive on the right side of the road just because it works for us,” he said.

“Okay.”

“No!” he said, again very loudly, annoying me even further. I reminded myself that I was sitting above his property. “When convention was codified, no one argued for the left side of the road, to be in communion with England or Australia? No, someone argued. Some percentage of the population strongly desired to drive on the left side of the road. In fact, I hazard to guess that there will always be a percentage of people who want to drive on the left side of the road, and they are making the same argument as you: the convention for right-side driving is founded upon baseless, logic-free, utilitarian convention.”

Sweden arbitrarily codifies the Continental convention.
Sweden arbitrarily codifies the Continental convention.

I stared into a distant thicket, hoping against vain hope to catch sight of movement. Alas, he continued:

“What percentage of people do you think it is?”

“I dunno, three?”

“Okay, let’s say five percent, for round numbers,” he said. “Five percent of the population is completely opposed to right-side only driving, constantly lobbying the rest of the population to allow left-side driving in addition to right-side driving.”

“Normally, the ninety-five percent would ignore the five.”

“Moreover, when it came right down to it, only two percent of the population said they would actually drive on the left-side of the road, were it conventional,” he said.

“Okay, so the ninety-eight percent would ignore the two. Or, in realistic terms, a vast majority would ignore the two percent, going on with their business.”

“Ah,” said Rafe. “But what if the two appeal to justice?”

“Justice?”

“It’s all relative,” he said.

“But it’s all relative to something,” I argued.

“If that’s true–and it’s not–who are you to say what that something is?” he riposted. I sighed.

“Why have convention on the roads at all?” I said.

“Indeed,” said Rafe. “Many countries do not. Aren’t you the one who brags about going down to Nicaragua all the time? How’s the driving down there?”

“Terrifying.”

“Says you. One man’s terror is another man’s adventure. After all, big shot, you can step in the river only–”

“Don’t!” I shouted. “Don’t you dare.” He laughed.

“What was that?” he whispered, pointing into the thicket. I stared. He stared. Minutes passed. The sun drooped toward the horizon. Presently, I felt something crawling along my thigh toward my crotch.

I swiped at it. It was Rafe’s hand!

“Hey!” I cried out. “What the–?”

He laughed, and we stared into the distance again while the light waned. After a minute he did it again, this time with his hand nearing the danger zone.

“Listen, Raphael,” I said. “You do that again, and I swear, I will throw you off this double-buddy. I promise. To the ground. I’ll tell the DEC you fell.” He laughed.

After another minute, he did it again, right on my man-parts, so I jammed my elbow into his ribs.

“Hey, cut it out,” he said. “I was just funnin’.”

“Just funnin’? With my man-parts? Who funs with another guy’s man-parts?”

“Seriously, Dave,” he said. “Teasin’. Just joshin’, yankin’ yer chain.”

“TWSS,” I said. We laughed and climbed out of the double buddy. I can’t get back out there until Friday, October 2.

The Ontology of Economics

Earlier this year I opined on twitter that economists are essentially philosophers with full employment:

Jokes aside, my glaring omission, of course, was ontology. Ontology is the subset of philosophy concerned with the nature and categories of being and existence. In the case of economics, the core ontological preoccupation is with the nature and existence of market equilibria and their constituent parts: supply and demand, institutions, representative agents, social planners, and so on. Some focus on ontologies of being, like a static equilibrium, while Hayek and Buchanan famously had ontologies of becoming that emphasized the importance of analyzing economic processes. Others debate the gestalt between whole markets and individual exchanges — supply and demand curves versus a game theory model of bargaining, say. Others-still question the reality of economic “absences,” like productivity measurements produced as a statistical residual, or the output gap between real and potential GDP.

Economic ontology therefore touches on every aspect of economic thinking and analysis, and as such the biggest rifts in economics often come down to mutually incompatible ontological commitments. For instance, I once read a polemic against Keynesian economics that proclaimed matter of factly that the macroeconomy “doesn’t exist,” that it’s nothing more than a metaphor for a complex aggregation of individual interactions. Well — no duh. Individuals are aggregations of complex biochemical interactions, as well, but that doesn’t make them any less real. Much like debating the point at which a collection of individual grains becomes a heap — there simply is no fact of the matter.

As in the example above, it’s important to be able to discern the difference between a category mistake (like attributing motives to GDP or the fallacy of composition) and a difference in construal (like acknowledging aggregates exist in the first place). More often than not, the existential quantifier (or dubbing something “real”) is less about proposing an object as genuinely more or less fundamental and more about raising or lowering that object’s social status. This may be incredibly useful in the context of rhetoric and persuasion, but it is usually safer to embrace a plurality of ontologies as equally valid based on use and context.

That is, economists should be ontological pluralists. And self-consciously so.

Michael, Elliott’s Older Brother

My older boys watched Steven Spielberg’s E.T. with me. It was an experiment of mine to see how they might appreciate the movie completely out of cultural context, meaning, when I was nine years old, the bicycle silhouetted against the moon was iconic; we lived and breathed E.T. for years, knew all the tropes, memorized most of the dialogue, collected the E.T. stuffed toys, played the terrible Atari video game, and so forth. As far as my investigations could gather, Tom and Jack hadn’t even heard of E.T. They were tabulae rasae.

Therefore, I was surprised by my own reactions. First of all, as a critic, I was surprised by how many stories are being told, and, moreover, how the main story was told so subtly. For a kids’ movie, Spielberg took an enormous risk with symbolism and framing cues (if you know what I mean). In other words, there was no cabbie explaining the plot to the lowest common denominator in the audience, practically ruining the mystery and imagination. Do we have kids’ movies told so subtly nowadays? My impression is no, but I’d love to see something to contrast the thick stream of broadly told kiddie adventure movies loosely tied to minor character attributes such as loyalty, honor, friendship, or whatever tertiary trait we might want to see develop in ourselves or our children.

Secondly, as a real grown-up with kids of my own, I was struck by the spectacular emotional arc. The man-cave got awfully dusty. The movie is about separation, most importantly, about severance of the home and family. “Dad” is a major character in the movie because he’s not there; he ran away to Mexico with Sally, and this fact drives so much of the movie’s symbolism, character development, theme, etc. Elliot mercilessly pushes this point home near the beginning of the film, driving it deep into Mom’s broken heart.

Are we even allowed to tell stories like this anymore? Divorce was practically a brand-new feature of the American middle class, and it was at that time viewed as entirely and selfishly self-centered, especially with children involved, and we hadn’t yet rationalized away the immense pain created, which yields to rage. I have these memories (perhaps I’ve shared elsewhere) of riding skateboard in brand new residential subdivisions, such as were featured in the movie, talking with my friends about our parents’ divorces. The emotional wreckage was a seed planted to blossom later. How does divorce rank lately? Because we are enraptured by solipsisnormativity, crimes against home and family have been marginalized, so I don’t know that E.T. could have been told today.

Michael, Elliott’s older brother, owns the movie. Naturally he is overshadowed by the puppet and the marvelous performance of Henry Thomas as Elliott, but the story hinges on his own yearning for a father figure, someone who might teach him how to be a man. Spielberg cues us to think to this effect now and again, mostly in the numerous scenes of his mustering up manhood in defense of his mother, but later, more subtly, in the care and protection of E.T., the newest, most vulnerable member of the family, perhaps a father figure himself, though cast in weakness. At the end, Michael, a new man, has gathered to himself a vindication that he has reunited the family around his own courage.

E.T. says to him, “Thank you.”

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