She Blinded Me With Hermeneutics

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All the Philosopher-Kings Couldn’t Put Rationality Together again

More than virtue ethics, which he is most associated with, Alasdair MacIntyre’s corpus is concerned with the question of rational adjudication.

You see it in his most famous work After Virtue, and you see it in Whose Justice? Which Rationality? But it reaches its zenith in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry: Encyclopaedia, Genealogy, and Tradition.

The latter begins with the Ninth Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and the worldview it embodied. This worldview held to a “unitary conception of reason,”

as affording a single view of the developing world within which each part of the enquiry contributes to an overall progress and whose supreme achievement is an account of the progress of mankind

The Ninth Edition embodied this view because of the very idea of the encyclopaedia at the time. It was seriously believed that you could just get all the experts to summarize the present state of knowledge across all domains. That the encyclopaedia could serve as a window into a unified world of the known, where truth, as Popper put it, was manifest. A non-expert could read the Encyclopedia Britannica and as a result be elevated to the status of an educated person.

This worldview was unable to sustain itself for very long. It’s unlikely that it would have continued even without Nietzsche, but MacIntyre believes that it certainly could not survive his critiques.  In the Nietzschean genealogy there is a radical disunity, and especially in its successors the only possibility of unity is in the cynical power relations lurking behind every moralistic mask.

Nietzsche gave the Enlightenment a kick over the side of the wall, and all the king’s philosophers and all the king’s technocrats have been trying to put it back together again ever since. Without success.

For MacIntyre it boils down to the “resources” a framework has for making progress with its internally identified problems. Once the problem of disunity became apparent to the thinkers of the Enlightenment, it quickly became clear that their framework lacked the resources to move beyond it. The genealogists contributed a real insight by shedding light on this problem. However, MacIntyre points out that their framework does not include a place for the genealogist himself. If all intellectual positions are simply cynical power moves waiting to be unmasked, then who is doing the unmasking? There is no place for the truth of this claim within the genealogy framework, for there is no place for truth at all beyond what is waiting to be unmasked as something else.

MacIntyre’s approach for adjudicating among rival and incommensurable frameworks goes something like this:

  1. Delve into the literature and debates within each framework until you can explain and defend them as well as any of their proponents.
  2. Identify the problems internal to one approach—that is, the problems that the proponents of that approach recognize as problems, on the terms defined by that framework.
  3. Identify another framework that has greater resources for resolving those problems than the framework which identifies them as problems.
  4. ???
  5. Rational adjudication!

I jest a bit here, because MacIntyre admitted that you could identify the superior approach through this method, but still fail to persuade anyone that that is what had happened. And indeed, the case of this process which he identifies in the book failed to take Christendom by storm. Thomas Aquinas successfully synthesized Platonic Augistinianism and Aristotelianism into a superior framework, but it still remained but one framework among incommensurable rivals.

Moreover, MacIntyre views persuasion as nothing but manipulation, something in opposition to the rational adjudication he strives for. Without an ethical, undevious theory of persuasion, it’s not clear to me how he can fill in step 4.

Consequentialist Duct Tape

I turn now to a tale of two posts: Akiva’s and Jordan’s.

Both center around the same problem as MacIntyre: we’ve got all these rival, sometimes categorically opposing points of view, and no way to adjudicate them.

Jordan focuses mostly on the logic of opposing divine commands:

With moralized political discourse, opportunities for compromise are unilateral closed. After all, if, for instance, you believe abortion to literally be murder, why would you negotiate with murderers or their supporters? If you believe in human rights, why would you ever allow your nation to trade favors with a nation that ignores them?

Akiva leans more heavily on social science:

Our feelings group-select us into tribes that share similar moral foundations, building identity (”I’m a conservative, and I stand for x”) but leaving us close minded to people who don’t speak our moral language. The resulting process from working from ideals makes us conceive of what is always a messy exercise in figuring out how to live with one another and coordinate social life, into a contest for dominance over institutions and encourages divisiveness. Politics breeds both abstract moralism and tribal thinking, encouraging groupish vindictiveness.

Both turn to a sort of meta-consequentialism in order to put moral adjudication back together again.

Akiva wants to reframe the debate in terms of ranked preferences and trade-offs.

Notice that this isn’t just a classification of the banners under which we ride our noble steeds for Justice, our hair streaming in the wind whilst we thrust the lances of Truth. What the right is saying is that they opt for a distinct set of moral tradeoffs. They would prefer that private actors have higher degrees of control over their domain, with the imperfections that come from ensuring compensation only from competitive pressures, in order to allow actors to make more individual choices about their dealings with one another, and prevent what they view as an unfair form of paternalistic management that raises costs and restricts contracts. The left would prefer that we attempt to guarantee an absolute level of market wages for a certain aggregate of workers, because they would rather ensure an absolute footing of bargaining power for at least a certain percentage of people, and be guaranteed that specific benefits are assured for those workers.

Jordan wants us to adopt a “trader morality” in which we are more open about the price we put on a particular value:

Trader morality doesn’t have to be amoral, but it means knowing the price of one’s values. There’s a facetious dilemma that went around evangelical Christian circles when I was a kid, wrongly attributed to a popular figure at the time, in which the man asks a woman if she’d sleep with him for a million dollars. She says yes, so then he asks if she would sleep with him for 50. The negative response is then shown as proof that she “lacks values”, but I don’t see that at all. The woman, as opposed to her interlocutor, understood her values and knew where she was willing to trade on them. In this case, she valued financial security more than abstinence; the man, on the other hand, by ascribing infinite value to obedience to God (in the form of sexual purity), was shown incapable of negotiation.

These are both attempts to provide a theoretical framework which both embraces pluralism and allows for rational adjudication between the plural value systems within it. The problem with this is that all pluralisms share with monisms an excluding quality—for one thing, a monistic order is excluded. So a trader morality must exclude a morality which says that it is always wrong to sell your body, no matter the price, full stop. But it must also exclude other forms of pluralism.

Your version of pluralism becomes just another rival, incommensurable framework floating around in the marketplace of ideas. And consequentialism is just as much a tribe as the political ones Akiva describes.

Prejudicial in the Best Sense

I don’t want to be too hard on my fellow Sweet Talkers, I liked a lot of what they had to say. And I found it interesting that Akiva said that we ought to be more postmodern. It’s just a shame that his ultimate argument was couched in terms of how to “reconfigure ideology” into a framework in which “a significantly consequentialist attitude is king.” To me this phrasing, and especially consequentialism itself, seem to bring with them all the trappings of High Modernity.

Lately I have been reading Hans-Georg Gadamer, who no one would accuse of being modernist. David likes to call him “non-modern” to avoid the baggage of “postmodern” but also to emphasize that it was modernism that was an aberration.

Part of the problem with even someone like MacIntyre is the tendency to see traditions of thought as way too self-contained, given things. He makes it seem like there are these rival threads that are intellectually cohesive, and you have to approach them as the structures that they are, and choose among alternatives or fashion something new from the materials they provide.

In reality, things are much more fluid. I think Deirdre McCloskey’s perspective on persuasion is better at capturing that, and is a good supplement to MacIntyre. But Gadamer’s take on understanding is best of all, in the sense of being the most fleshed out and the most true to human beings.

Akiva talks at length about our biases and irrationality. Gadamer instead speaks of prejudices, and says that the chief prejudice of the Enlightenment was a prejudice against prejudice.

“Prejudicial” is simply “pre” as in “before” and “judicial” as in “judgment.” Historically, it once meant the provisional verdicts that a judge would mentally arrive at before the time came to render the final judgment. Prejudice is not only necessary here, but good. Making a provisional judgment before the final one allows you to focus on specific questions, to guide your attention to particular matters you might have otherwise overlooked. It’s not only impossible for a judge to sit back without prejudice until the time of rendering a judgment, as the romantics and others have emphasized, they would also be a bad judge for doing so.

Gadamer thought that the romantics, and even Burke, just made themselves into mirror images of the Enlightenment. Where the Enlightment thinkers asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, and therefore bad, the romantics asserted that tradition was something accepted without reason, but was greater than reason. In both cases it was treated as a black box to be labeled either bad or good.

For Gadamer, tradition is something that only exists if it is participated in, and it is continually created and transformed in that participation.

The central case for him, is, of course, the interpreting of a text—hence hermeneutics. The act of interpretation is neither objective nor purely subjective; though he didn’t have the word, it is conjective. It takes place in the space between reader and text. We cannot read a text any way we like; there is something about it that asserts itself. This is in the nature of language, and how we are inculcated into it. But the truths in a text go beyond simply communicating information; we must interpret, and we always interpret by integrating what we read into what Gadamer calls our horizon.

The horizon is the range of vision that includes everything that can be seen from a particular vantage point. Applying this to the thinking mind, we speak of narrowness of horizon, of the possible expansion of horizon, of the opening up of new horizons, and so forth. Since Nietzsche and Husserl, the word has been used in philosophy to characterize the way in which thought is tied to its finite determinacy, and the way one’s range of vision is gradually expanded. A person who has no horizon does not see far enough and hence over-values what is nearest to him. On the other hand, “to have a horizon” means not being limited to what is nearby but being able to see beyond it.

What occurs in reading a text—say for the purpose of learning history—is not some objectivistic “fusing of horizons” between yours and someone else’s. You are always within your own perspective, never outside of it.

Understanding tradition undoubtedly requires a historical horizon, then. But it is not the case that we acquire this horizon by transposing ourselves into a historical situation. Rather, we must always already have a horizon in order to be able to transpose ourselves into a situation. For what do we mean by “transposing ourselves”? Certainly not just disregarding ourselves. This is necessary, of course, insofar as we must imagine the other situation. But into this other situation we must bring, precisely, ourselves. Only this is the full meaning of “transposing ourselves.” If we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes, for example, then we will understand him— i.e., become aware of the otherness, the indissoluble individuality of the other person— by putting ourselves in his position.

Putting yourself in someone else’s shoes means that you yourself, with all your prejudices, are able to broaden your horizon in order to see more than you could before. But you are still seeing it from your perspective, though this perspective will be transformed by becoming “aware of the otherness”. It will be transformed precisely in bringing out prejudices that may have been hidden from you, to scrutinize more closely but, more importantly, to view in light of your expanded horizon.

The Spiral

If that sounded more than a little opaque, I apologize. The continentals are a difficult bunch, and I’m still wrestling with Gadamer’s ideas. Let’s turn for now to the concept of the hermeneutic circle, or as David prefers to call it, the spiral.

This is the old idea that you can only understand the part in terms of the whole, and you can only understand the whole through the parts. It sounds circular (hence the name) but it is absolutely true of everything from learning a language to becoming a specialist within a particular field.

You can think of our prejudices as forming a provisional notion of what the whole looks like and what its relationship to the parts are. When we encounter a new part, we both interpret it in terms of our provisional concept of the whole, and we revise that concept in terms of this new part.

Similarly, when we read a text, we have some provisional guess as to what the book as a whole will be about when we go into it. We revise this with each part of the text that we confront, and once we have read the whole book, the meaning of each part will seem different than it did as we were still making our way to the end.

But where to draw the line at what is considered “the whole” is in some sense arbitrary. Is a book the whole? Or is the author’s entire life work the whole? Should we also include all his letters? Will we never know the whole unless we also know every conversation he ever had? What about the entire tradition he was operating in? What about all of history before and after him? When is enough enough, in terms of context? What is the whole?

And what counts as a part? Is a sentence the basic part of a text, or the paragraph? Or the word? The letter?

Prejudice is how we make these choices. We think of individuals as the basic social unit, rather than cells or molecules or atoms, because we provisionally decide so. If we did not have this prejudice, we wouldn’t be able to operate at all, socially.

If hermeneutics is Gadamer’s discipline of arriving at understanding, rhetoric is the art of bringing other people to an understanding.

Rhetoric is what I would elevate above any attempt to create a method of rational adjudication. You start with prejudices which color your understanding of the part and the whole. Through hermeneutics, you constantly revise each. Through rhetoric, you seek to bring others to your understanding, by offering a part or a picture of the whole which provokes your audience to reconsider.

In spite of my biases, my ideological tribalism, and—dare I say it—my prejudices, I believe that I have understood Akiva and Jordan. In fact, I can only understand them at all because of these things.

I promised Akiva a response to his piece. What should the nature of this response be? Should I tell him what values I rank very highly that I think his system would imperil?

Or should I give him a post attempting to provoke him to revise his provisional judgment of how the marketplace of ideas works on the whole?

I can tell that my rhetoric needs work, where Gadamer is concerned. Perhaps this post will do a poor job of conveying his ideas in particular, or even my understanding of them (or worse—why they are relevant to the discussion at hand).

But I think that Akiva and Jordan will find something that they understand in this post.

This does not mean that they will agree with me. I suspect they probably won’t. But I hope they’ll be able to understand me, to a greater or lesser degree. And I’m not worried about our rival, incommensurable standpoints serving as completely opaque and impenetrable walls between us.

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David Henderson Doubles Down on a Calculated Love

David Henderson is not happy with Richard Thaler’s potshot against neoclassical economics.

Thaler made a typical joke about economists—that if they treated their loved ones  the way their models imply they do, they would be very unloving, indeed.

Henderson digs his feet in and insists that expected utility calculations are central to evaluating a “potential romantic partner.”

You fall in love with someone. You start discussing your future. You find out that you’re a Bryan Caplan who wants 10 kids and she’s a career woman who wants $10 million. What do you do? You drop her, or she drops you. In other words, you’ve tried to get relevant information about this potential romantic partner and that information has led you to conclude that this relationship won’t work.

In another example, he explains how a specific preference that a potential partner has causes “Your estimate of the probability that this will work” to fall.

In other words, he presents us with a typical prudence-only story of how love works, going on to talk about the role of incomplete information and up-front investment costs, and so forth. Perhaps, beyond the narrow points he’s seeking to make against Thaler, he does not think that everything about love is so reducible to expected utility calculations. Keeping this possibility in mind, I’m going to respond to the version of love he actually presents in the post.

Continue reading “David Henderson Doubles Down on a Calculated Love”

Own Your Standards

What does it mean to be a master of a craft?

Alasdair MacIntyre’s notion of the goods internal to a practice self-consciously separates the standards of practitioners from mere material gain, which constitute “external goods”. As a follower of McCloskey, it seems clear to me that the sacred and the profane are not so cleanly separable. Previously, when I have written about this, I argued that external goods must be internalized in some way. That is, part of the way you become a good carpenter, or good lawyer, or good salesman, is by making money in a good way. That is to say, part of the ethics of a practice is precisely how you deal with your customers or clients or patrons or donors.

If you buy the argument that internal goods exist, what you think about the nature of them probably relates to your beliefs about the nature of morality in general. I have my own thoughts on the matter.

Regardless, it seems to me that our understanding of these goods is conjective. That means that it is contestable, negotiable, political—in short, a matter of persuasion.

Continue reading “Own Your Standards”

Science is Persuasion

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Even Heterodox Economics is Misguided

Earlier this week, Arnold Kling—who taught the first economics class I ever took—wrote a post comparing behaviorism in psychology to Samuelsonianism in economics. In his view, the chief failings of these approaches are an overemphasis on mechanistic models on the one hand, and a “blank slate” view of human nature on the other. For both reasons, he’s rereading Stephen Pinker, enemy of blank slate models and enthusiastic booster of computational, rather than mechanistic, models of cognition.

I argued that computational models are not different in kind from mechanistic ones, they are just more sophisticated. I pointed him towards works in the rhetoric of inquiry tradition, in particular Economics and Hermeneutics, an excellent collection edited by the late Don Lavoie and available for free online.

It seems that he’s now reading that very collection, which is great. However, I remember my own first encounter with this tradition of thought—through Deirdre McCloskey’s The Rhetoric of Economics—and I found it quite baffling at the time.

I think there are a lot of people educated in economics who sense that something is wrong in the house that Samuelson built. However, the tools that most heterodox schools have to offer—and here I include even most versions of the Austrian school—simply won’t help you see some of the fundamental errors of the mainstream view. At best the problems of the mainstream schools are replaced with more nuanced, subtle, and complex models that nevertheless share the same underlying characteristics.

This is the basis of McCloskey’s critique of the neo-institutionalists; they think they’ve moved beyond Samuelsonian limitations, when in fact they’ve simply subsumed the idea of an institution into a Samuelsonian framework. Thus instead of conveying meaning or providing frameworks of interpretation or shaping conjective reality, institutions are treated as structures of reward-and-punishment designed in just such a way to make utility maximizers cooperate with one another.

The writers in the Project On Rhetoric Of Inquiry, as well as hermeneutics and what Lavoie calls “the interpretative turn” in general, can be hard for outsiders of that tradition to get their head around. So this post will be my attempt to introduce one version of that line of thinking. My intended audience are primarily heterodox economists, but the argument will be relevant to economists and social scientists in general, and indeed any scientist or scholar.

Continue reading “Science is Persuasion”

You Don’t Have a PR Person Telling You What to Say

For years after the success of Pygmalion, his play later adapted into the more famous musical My Fair Lady, George Bernard Shaw spilled a lot of ink arguing that Eliza would not marry Higgins. But he never edited the script to make this explicit within the play itself. Yet he wrote the play, so presumably he knew his own intentions—surely his take on the matter is authoritative?

This is wrong. The meaning of a text, or a play, or a film, or a song, is not subjective. Nor is it objective. It is conjective; Deirdre McCloskey’s word for what John Searle refers to as an “institutional fact” (or even more of a mouthful, “ontologically subjective but epistemologically objective”). Shaw could only write the play at all because he was educated and gained experience within a particular storytelling tradition at a particular place and a particular period of history. Certainly a great deal of subjective thoughts, feelings, intuitions and understandings played a role in the process of writing the play.

But the meaning exists in the space between the play and the audience, not in any one person’s head. So despite Shaw’s protests, the interpretation that, having now fully become a lady, Eliza would not settle for anything less than marriage, has a lot of strength given the culture the play is supposed to take place in. Certainly that’s how audiences have largely interpreted it for as long as it or its musical adaptation have been shown.

There are some strange implications to this point, once you accept it. If text takes on a life of its own once you’ve put it out there, what about text with a less artistic intent? Say…a tweet?

Consider this telling statement from indie game developer Tim Schafer:

Game-fame, he says, is a tool. It is not to be taken personally and certainly not to be taken seriously. But there is always a price.

“If you’re going to create a high-profile media version of yourself, you have to accept that person is sometimes going to be a magnet for animosity. But early on, I always realized there was a difference between me the person and me the media creation who was generated to help me get games funded.

“Some people get driven kind of crazy by confusing the two things.”

Does this mean that the person who is presented to the public is a complete fake, a phony, a hypocrite? No, nor need he be.

The point is that every statement has an implied author, and that the character of this implied person is not the subjective vision you have of yourself. No, the implications are conjective; your audience will piece together that character from the context they have available to them.

Rhetoric is much maligned in our authenticity obsessed era, but it is nothing more than than the art of wrestling with how you will be interpreted. To see why rhetoric is so important, look no further than Suey Park, one of many who found her life turned upside down by a few tweets that went viral:

She grew uncomfortable when I asked why conflict on Twitter had once ensnared her to such an extent. “You don’t have a PR person telling you what to say. Sometimes I feel like a child celebrity, defined by some things said and done in immaturity forever.”

Public Relations, being a subset of rhetoric, is another thing that people look down their noses at these days. Yet Suey Park clearly wishes she could have had some of its insights in mind before this incident occurred.

An important part of communicating the meaning you intended to, and representing the implied author you had in mind, is to consider your implied audience. Sometimes the enterprising rhetorician will create this implied audience where it did not previous exist—McCloskey’s example is Robert Fogel creating an audience of economically literate historians. But most of the time this is just a recipe for not getting your intended meaning across.

We live in a difficult time. It has grown harder to control what your audience will be.

For most of history, a speech, a newspaper, or a magazine all had fairly clear audiences. Now, anything you say anywhere can suddenly go viral. This includes private conversations, given how trivially easy it is to record audio or make a video on a smartphone. Donald Sterling certainly didn’t think he was announcing his racist attitudes to the world.

Given that meaning depends on context, the fact that a statement can instantly jump contexts is troubling. But that does not mean that we should give up hope. We need to channel Tim Schafer’s detachment from the implied author we present to the world, and to take our rhetoric more seriously. The fact that meaning can be more easily snatched away from us than ever is all the more reason why we need to prepare ourselves to contest hostile interpretations, if we wish to have any influence at all.

Three cheers for PR, public personas, and rhetoric. We would all do well to take persuasion as seriously as the ancients our medieval ancestors.

The Arc of the Universe Bends Towards Meh

Progress and decline are just stories, but so is volatility. We like linearity, but we also like for things to have a shape, even if an awkward bendy one.

If you enter into the moral history of Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Era trilogy, or the people at HumanProgress.org, it seems obvious that we have made progress.  Even with the fluctuations of the last 15 years, food prices have plummeted over the past 100 years! We’ve cured so many diseases! For crying out loud, I am writing the post in an interface of a program running on a computer in a location I don’t even know, to be put out in public where a significant fraction of the global population can access it from any part of the world!

Yet for a certain set of people, it’s equally as obvious that we’re in decline. Some agree that we’ve made progress, but think it is a false progress—it rests on the back of exploitation of third world countries. Or maybe the Green Revolution helped us feed more people with fewer crop failures, but it uses practices that are not as time-tested, and probably aren’t sustainable. So we’re feeding more people now while setting ourselves up for a massive failure, and therefore mass starvation, at some stage in the uncertain future.

I think that McCloskey’s Bourgeois Dignity does a good job demolishing the notion that our prosperity rests on the continued poverty of others, and it is not alone in that. But if there’s one solid thing I took away from The Great Stagnation, and especially the debates that it sparked, it is that it is incredibly hard to think about progress, decline, and well-being, period.

Cultural conservatives often claim we’re in decline from the point of view of deteriorating values. Roy Baumeister’s book covering his work on willpower makes the claim that the Victorians took self-control much more seriously than we do, and we are the worse for it. More extreme claims of moral decline, are, of course, quite common. MacIntyre’s After Virtue tells you where he stands on the matter in his title. Mencius Moldbug, the pseudonymous prophet of the Internet neoreactionaries, resurrects Carlyle among others to make the claim that we have fallen into complete lawlessness and immorality. He thinks the Victorians eradicated violent crime, but liberal ideology led us to abandon the very values that made such eradication possible.

Consider Baltimore. For those looking through the lens of decline, the writing is on the wall—the barbarians have stormed the gates, they are on the inside, they’re just waiting for the right moment to deliver the final blow to our crumbling civilization. For those looking through the lens of progress, the riots in Baltimore are unfortunate but the peaceful protests, and increased media scrutiny of cop violence there, in New York, and in Ferguson, Missouri all hint at a possibility of important reform. A chance to take a next step in the journey that began with the abolition of slavery, continued through the civil rights movement, and continues to this day, if we who inherited it make ourselves good caretakers.

Can this be resolved by grandma’s conciliatory comment that “everyone is right,” is some sense? Well, I’m in a pessimistic mood, so I’m going to say that everyone is wrong, in the big view.

Progress and decline can be useful lenses, but that’s what they are. They can shed light on certain aspects of the world we live in, but they can never encompass it. The optimist feeling the march of progress will point out how precipitously crime has dropped in this country since the early 90s. The liberal is quick to point out that this is mirrored by an explosion in incarceration. The conservative chuckles, and replies “don’t you see how the one caused the other?” Progress in policing, through Broken Window theories and such like—we are told.

As someone who has defended the wisdom of the ages in the form of our traditions, I have repeatedly been asked how traditionalism could have fostered abolitionism when legal slavery existed in this country. Lately, I ask myself the same question: how would I, personally, have lived with the reality of being in a country with the living institution of slavery? How would I have lived with coming from a middle class family, getting a good education, and generally prospering in such a country?

The best way to answer that question is, of course, to read what people said back then. About the subject, and in general. I have not done this, not really. And shame on me for that. In school, I read some of the debates on the matter that happened in the decade or two prior to the outbreak of the Civil War. The Civil War is, of course, another one of those great divergent points for various narratives. For most, the Civil War is the war against slavery. For some, it is the patriotic war against the rebel army. For others, it is the War Between the States; one victory among what would be many for centralized power over local communities.

But I digress—the reason I pose the question about being a person on the right side of the slavery question while living in that era is that, for some, that is our present. Oh, it isn’t slavery specifically, of course. But there’s a narrative in which there’s a moral equivalency. To return to incarceration, a frequently repeated statistic in certain corners is that there are more black men in prison today than there were enslaved in 1850. The liberal and libertarian point out to their chuckling conservative friend that nearly all of this has to do with the so-called war on drugs, the very thing (some would argue) which created circumstances for the late twentieth century spike in crime. Unlike his liberal friend, the libertarian emphasizes the role that public housing has played in creating completely toxic cultural environments. Conservatives like Theodore Dalrymple, in fact, fixate on such cultures and make a career out of writing about them. For Dalrymple, they serve as banner examples of moral decline.

Moreover, the liberal and libertarian will point out that having a controlled, structured engagement with law enforcement, with the credible threat of lawsuits or in any case some consequences for mistreatment, requires resources. The poorer you are, the fewer resources you have to bring to bear. There’s also a cultural element—educated people who have grown up well off tend to have a sense of entitlement, in a bad sense of course but also in the good sense of feeling entitled to having their dignity as a human being respected. They are more likely to be outraged if this expectation is violated, and to have the resources, and the friends and family with resources, to act on that outrage. As such, groups that do not have resources, and who mostly take it for granted that they are going to be mistreated and the abusers will get away with it, are much more vulnerable. Who knows how many of those black men in prison were just an easy target for a cop looking to improve his arrest statistics?

And let’s talk about statistics for a moment. I’m optimistic by disposition, and I am in awe of the dramatic decline in crime rates in my lifetime. But as I mentioned, I’m in a pessimistic mood. Statistics are judgments given the air of objectivity by the fact that they are numbers. “Data”, with its root meaning being “things given,” is highly misleading. To channel Deirdre McCloskey channeling R. D. Laing for a minute, I’d much rather we call it “capta”, or “things seized.” The Bureau of Justice Statistics did not see the givens about rape and sexual assault on college campuses hanging around in the air, much less in their spreadsheets. They used their judgments, informed by best practices among people who study such things, and came at the question as outsiders looking in. They judged that 80% of campus rapes and sexual assaults go unreported, an estimate arrived at through the use of surveys.

Such surveys are not truly random. They can’t be. Randomness is not a thing available to us in this world, when we are dealing with fellow free human beings. If nonresponse is systematic, and not itself random, then the results will be biased. All polling companies deal with this. In the case of elections, they can test their methods against the outcomes to an extent. It must be remembered that only polls very close to the election can be said to be directly tested; the long period before the election where polls purport to show the ups and down of public opinion cannot truly be tested in a similar way.

The conclusions drawn by polling agencies, and the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and anyone, are not really conclusions, but arguments. The BJS is arguing that rape and sexual assault happen at a lower rate on campuses than among the general population, but have a higher nonreport rate than what is already a very high general nonreport rate. The question is—should we believe them?

The reported rate is one thing. Certainly clerical errors happen in recording such things, but I don’t think it’s a great leap to say that our records for reported sexual assaults are a decent approximation.

As for total sexual assaults; well, that’s a harder judgment to make. I recall in the debates after The Great Stagnation came out that libertarians came out in droves to point out all the flaws and biases in median income and other statistics that Tyler Cowen trotted out as part of his argument. Cowen astutely observed that all of those biases and flaws were still present back when the median income data looked good, too.

So too for sexual assaults. 80% is a big number, but it has the virtue of being a number. For the general population they estimate 67%. To be frank, I don’t put much stock in either number. Maybe they are an exaggeration—certainly there are plenty of narratives saying that the question is overblown these days. Maybe they’re a vast underestimate—a lot of studies outside of BJS make that argument, as do activists in this area. Activists who are caretakers of another liberation, another march of progress.

What if the numbers are completely wrong? What if the bounds of all the surveys and judgment brought to bear on the matter are just bunk? Maybe sexual assaults were at an all time low when reported ones were at an all time high, and we are now seeing an all time high when reported ones are much lower. Maybe it peaked somewhere in the middle. Maybe the highest point was some random year in the 1930s.

I’m not saying that’s the case. I’m inviting you to consider how confident you are in the narrative that you are most attached to.

Because when I’m in a pessimistic mood, the only thing that gives me joy is raining on other people’s parades. Or their rallies.

I do believe the arguments that the Great Enrichment happened, but it gave us progress from a material point of view. I don’t think that the life of a peasant was necessarily morally inferior to ours. Nor do I think that the life of a stockbroker is necessarily morally inferior to a pious medieval peasant.

I’m not sure that I believe there is progress, or decline. But there is life, and living.

Of course, if I was a city dweller during the fall of Rome, I might feel differently. And if I were a poor immigrant who moved to this country and made a living, and saw my children make a better one, I would probably feel differently, too.

They are useful lenses. When applied carefully.

What Then Are the Bourgeois Virtues?

What then are the bourgeois virtues? You ask me to preach. I’ll preach to thee.

The leading bourgeois virtue is the Prudence to buy low and sell high. I admit it. There. But it is also the prudence to trade rather than to invade, to calculate the consequences, to pursue the good with competence—Herbert Hoover, for example, energetically rescuing many Europeans from starvation after 1918.

Another bourgeois virtue is the Temperance to save and accumulate, of course. But it is also the temperance to educate oneself in business and in life, to listen to the customer humbly, to resist the temptations to cheat, to ask quietly whether there might be a compromise here—Eleanor Roosevelt negotiating the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948.

A third is the justice to insist on private property honestly acquired. But it is also the justice to pay willingly for good work, to honor labor, to break down privilege, to value people for what they can do rather than for who they are, to view success without envy, making capitalism work since 1776.

A fourth is the Courage to venture on new ways of business. But it is also the courage to overcome the fear of change, to bear defeat unto bankruptcy, to be courteous to new ideas, to wake up next morning and face fresh work with cheer, resisting the despairing pessimism of the clerisy 1848 to the present. And so the bourgeoisie can have Prudence, Temperance, Justice, and Courage, the pagan four. Or the Scottish three—Prudence, Temperance, and justice, the artificial virtues—plus enterprise, that is, Courage with another dose of Temperance.

Beyond the pagan virtues is the Love to take care of one’s own, yes. But it is also a bourgeois love to care for employees and partners and colleagues and customers and fellow citizens, to wish well of humankind, to seek God, finding human and transcendent connection in the marketplace in 2006, and in a Scottish benevolence c. 1759.

Another is the Faith to honor one’s community of business. But it is also the faith to build monuments to the glorious past, to sustain traditions of commerce, of learning, of religion, finding identity in Amsterdam and Chicago and Osaka.

Another is the Hope to imagine a better machine. But it is also the hope to see the future as something other than stagnation or eternal recurrence, to infuse the day’s work with a purpose, seeing one’s labor as a glorious calling, ing, 1533 to the present. So the bourgeoisie can have Faith, Hope, and Love, these three, the theological virtues.

That is, the bourgeois virtues are merely the seven virtues exercised in a commercial society. They are not hypothetical. For centuries in Venice and Holland and then in England and Scotland and British North America, then in Belgium, Northern France, the Rhineland, Sydney, Cleveland, Los Angeles, Bombay, Shanghai, and in a widening array of places elsewhere, against hardy traditions of aristocratic and peasant virtues, we have practiced them. We have fallen repeatedly, of course, into bourgeois vices. Sin is original. But we live in a commercial society, most of us, and capitalism is not automatically vicious or sinful. Rather the contrary.

“Bourgeois virtues” is no contradiction. It is the way we live now, mainly, at work, on our good days, and the way we should, Mondays through Fridays.

-Deirdre McCloskey, The Bourgeois Virtues

Who Will Speak For Us?

Storytelling is central to the human experience. It sets us apart from other animals to almost the same degree as language itself.

As stories are generated and retold, we develop a kind of grammar. These days, we call the units of that grammar tropes. I have a trope in mind that I wanted to begin with, but for once TV tropes appears to have failed me. There’s one that’s in the ballpark of what I’m going for, but not exactly there. But I’m betting you’ll find this familiar.

Imagine a father who has very particular expectations for their son. Beyond expectations, he have been excited by the prospect of his son taking over the family business, or becoming a doctor or lawyer, or starting a family, ever since he was born. The father has invested an enormous amount of emotional energy into this vision. The son wants to go to college, or wants to be an actor, or doesn’t want to have kids, or is gay. When he confronts his father about it, it is a tremendous blow. His father is completely devastated to lose this story of his son’s life that he had held onto so tightly. But the father pulls himself together, and gives his blessing, even if it isn’t needed. Even if the son is still dependent on the father materially, the father respects his son’s autonomy too much to try and strong-arm him into the path he wanted.

The son goes on to pursue his chosen path, and the father never once gives him grief about it again. But he also never entirely recovers from the disappointment. Perhaps it is only a lingering sadness, perhaps it becomes a more acute depression as the years go on. But he genuinely cares about and respects his son, and never makes him feel as though this depression is his son’s fault. Perhaps he skillfully conceals it; perhaps the son lives in a distant city so the visits are few enough that not much skill is required. But he takes pride in the life that his son has, even if he still can’t help letting the glimmering dream of what could have been weigh on him.

A Story of a Different Kind

Now, let’s tell that again in the language of economics.

The father had strong preferences when it came to how his son was to live. His son’s life choices thus constituted an externality on him, positive or negative. When given the opportunity to attempt to credibly threaten to impose costs should his son deviate from his preferred path, the father revealed through his action that he more highly valued his preference for being respectful than his preference for the specific life plan he had in mind for his son. This choice entailed certain costs but it gave him the most value out of his available options, as it must have if he made the choice voluntarily.

Has rather a different feel to it, doesn’t it?

At my request, Mark Lutter offered a few critical comments on Deirdre McCloskey’s latest paper. I’m not going to get into the comments on economic growth; for one thing, I’m not all that qualified to. For another, McCloskey hasn’t really made her positive case there yet. But I want to address his last three points, especially the last one:

McCloskey is arguing that economics should embrace speech, stories, shame, and the Sacred. I agree. Economists should also take culture more seriously, take beliefs and morality more seriously, and rely less on complex mathematics. However, economists can do all that just fine within the existing framework.

Related is his sixth point that “she argues that things like identity and morality cannot be captured by neo-classical economics, but gives little reason as to why.” I would say that “cannot” is probably the wrong word. You can capture anything within any framework, if you desire to—but beyond a certain point it often means assuming the can opener.

What McCloskey means when she makes statements about “the immense literature on ethics since 2000 BCE” or “the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories, and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians” she is advocating learning from the humanities. She is saying that there has been a conversation about human nature and culture and ideas for thousands of years, and economists would do well to familiarize themselves with it. If they’re going to dismiss it, they ought to dismiss it from a place of knowledge rather than because it is the path of least resistance.

I think the central point of debate here is what should be integrated into what. Should the sacred be integrated into “the existing framework” in economics, or should the existing framework be integrated into something bigger, older, and richer? I think you know my answer, and McCloskey’s.

The story I started out with is based on insights drawn from a storytelling tradition that I have been immersed in since practically before I spoke my first word. You tell me: do you want to reduce that story to the version that can be accommodated by the existing framework in economics? Or do you want to use the insights of economics without giving up on what is at work in the older tradition?

The Conversation of Social Science

“Cross-discipline” is a phrase used to describe the collaboration across the traditional boundaries between academic schools, but usually still within social science. It’s the talk among economists, sociologists, and psychologists, to name a few prominent fields that come to mind.

It’s this conversation that I thought of when I read Mark’s seventh point:

Seventh, and this applies to McCloskey more broadly than just this paper, what basis does she have for abandoning central economic assumptions. For ideas to matter either preferences are not constant (what she seems to be arguing given her jabs at de gustibus) or rational expectations is false. You cannot have all constant preferences, rational expectations, and ideas mattering. Given the importance of constant preferences and rational expectations the burden of proof is on McCloskey to change methodological assumptions. This burden of proof is especially difficult to reach in complex problems, and she fails to meet it.

Setting to the side whether McCloskey provided enough evidence, it seems odd to say that the burden is on those who are challenging assumptions just because those assumptions are important. Especially since constant preferences is one of the most notorious assumptions of economics outside of the field. To quote Daniel Kahneman:

To a psychologist, it is self-evident that people are neither fully rational nor completely selfish , and that their tastes are anything but stable. Our two disciplines seemed to be studying different species, which the behavioral economist Richard Thaler later dubbed Econs and Humans.

Kahneman and Thaler are one side of a big conversation that started in the 70s between psychologists and economists, the impact of which is still being felt in the latter field today. Psychologists like Kahneman can point to experimental evidence indicating that people’s preferences are not stable.

Economists, especially the institutional and Austrian variety, argue that taking people outside of institutional and cultural contexts into the highly specific environment of (usually) a college lab can only yield limited insights. Moreover, they point out how microeconomics makes the best predictions in specific domains, most concretely in auctions or in finance. And those predictions rest on the assumption of stable preferences, among others.

The categorical nature of the debate as I have witnessed it can grow tiring. Personally, I am persuaded by the “of course preferences aren’t stable” line of argument; I find it hard to believe that the changes I’ve witnessed in people in my own life are merely anecdotal. On the other hand, preferences must be stable to some degree; while not completely unchanging, nothing would get done if they were just constantly cycling.

So my question is: to what degree are preferences stable. Or more methodologically significant: what degree of stability is required to explain the empirical phenomena that line up with economic theory? I’m sure there’s a literature on this, but I confess to not having read it. Perhaps Mark or a reader can point me in the right direction.

More Human Than H(u) = α + βM + γA + δN + ε

But the most important disagreement is right there in Mark’s sixth point:

A simple explanation of identity and morality is they serve to signal in group status. People want to trade with people who have a shared set of expectations about what constitutes fair trade. More importantly, they want to live with people with a shared understanding of permissible violence. Because the most convincing person is one who believes what they are saying, identity and morality are a central part of humanity.

This is the exact sort of thinking that McCloskey is going after.

A relevant passage from her paper:

I get the price theory: price and property, the variables of prudence, price, profit, the Profane as I have called them, move people. But the point here is that they are also moved by the S variables of speech, stories, shame, the Sacred, and by the use of the monopoly of violence by the state, the legal rules of the game and the dance in the courts of law, the L variables. Most behavior, B, is explained by P and S and L, together:

B = α + βP + γS + δL + ε

Signaling, avoiding violence, setting terms of trade; these are P variables or possible P and L variables. McCloskey doesn’t deny them. But if Mark thinks he’s “embracing” S variables “within the existing framework”, he’s wrong. He’s simply reduced them to P (and possibly also L) variables.

This can perhaps be understood by reference to an earlier Sweet Talk conversation on the subject of honor and honoring. Sam, ever the economist, pointed out that honorable behavior is often socially desirable. As a result, we confer honors upon people who have proven themselves to be honorable; we give them medals in public, we announce their names on a list, sometimes we even erect monuments. This serves to subsidize the positive externalities to honorable behavior.

I agreed, but quickly added that there is such a thing as honor. Honor is not simply about producing social value—not that Sam every claimed as much, mind you! No, honor is about doing the right thing, even if you are not honored for it, even if it results in a material or emotional loss. And the conversation, reaching back before the Greek tragedians and up to the present from thinkers such as Rosalind Hursthouse, is full of people arguing that you should do the right thing even when it is in some way spiritually or morally deforming. If the only options in front of you are all terrible ones, you still must do what a good person ought to do, given those options.

Rather than whether or not S variables can be integrated into economics, the real debate is whether they exist at all. McCloskey’s claim, which I believe, is that attempts to translate S variables the way Mark did is the same as writing them off entirely for P variables. In an otherwise marvelous paper, Vlad Tarko errs in seeming to think that McCloskey herself makes a symmetrical mistake by assuming that there are only S variables, or that they are the only ones that matter. In fact, The Bourgeois Virtues is simply about making the case that there are S variables at all, in the face of a discipline that effectively rejects it.

Tarko takes an approach that I think McCloskey would approve of, speaking of “incentive-invariant” ideas and culture. It reminded me of this section of her paper:

The equation is not wishy-washy or unprincipled or unscientific. The S and L variables are the conditions under which the P variables work, and the P variables modify the effects of the S and L variables. Of course. For example, the conservative argument that laws serve as education would connect L causally to S, by a separate equation. Or again, when the price the Hudson Bay Company offered Indians in Canada for beaver pelts was high enough, the beaver population was depleted, in line with P-logic. But S-logic was crucial, too, making the P-logic relevant. As Ann Carlos and Frank Lewis explain, “Indian custom regarding the right to hunt for food and other aspects of their `Good Samaritan’ principle mitigated against the emergence of strong trespass laws and property rights in fur-bearing animals; conflict in the areas around the Hudson Bay hinterland contributed to an environment that was not conducive to secure tenure, and attitudes towards generosity and even a belief in reincarnation may have played a role” in running against better P-logic rules that would have preserved the beaver stock.

What this is all getting at is that there are true, internal goods as well as external ones. Commitment to particular internal goods both face external constraints, and have implications for the shape of some of those constraints. S variables influence P variables and are influenced by them in turn.

The traditional agrarian way of life has been largely washed away by the tide of the Great Enrichment in the countries where it has advanced the furthest. But the Amish have largely preserved it in their communities. They have done this in part through a commitment to shared values; S variables. They also have a very unique way of governing their communities, and are highly committed to enforcement through practices such as shunning; L variables. They have also had to buy up farmland in order to maintain their way of life; as that strategy has been exhausted they’ve had to allow a larger and larger fraction to work off the farm and even open businesses; P variables.

McCloskey’s equation is, of course, just a useful metaphor. As David Weinberger paraphrased:

As Umberto Eco says, there are many ways to carve a cow but none of them include a segment that features a snout connectd to the tail.

McCloskey’s three variables are a useful way of carving the cow, as is “the existing framework” in economics. But none should stand on their own, and (to stretch this metaphor a bit further than its usefulness) all end up discarding large segments of the original animal.

The best approach to understanding the human animal is to take in the whole conversation, not just economics and not just social science. For McCloskey as well as Michael Oakeshott, the voice of poetry, one of the oldest voices, deserves a place. Personally, I stand with them.

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McCloskey’s Representative Foe: The New Institutional Economics

I like to joke that Sweet Talk’s business model is to invite people to write here as though it were a big honor, and then guilt them until they take us up on it. Paul Crider is my latest victim; I invited him on a few months ago and he accepted but hadn’t decided on a topic. His first post came after we were discussing Deirdre McCloskey’s latest paper and he mentioned some concerns he had with it and with her treatment of the subject in Bourgeois Dignity. I said “That would make a great Sweet Talk post.” It was probably the second or third time I’d said that sentence to him; this time I got him to bite.

Since the entire point of Sweet Talk is conversation, I’d like to add to his inaugural post with one of my own.  I’m going to push back against his main claim, while tying it back to a previous thread on the nature of literatures more generally.

Neo-Institutionalism in Economics

Like Paul, I’m not what anyone would call an expert in institutional economics. I generally defer to fellow Sweet Talker Sam Wilson on such matters; I am here obliged to point you to a wonderful series he wrote on the subject over at Euvoluntary Exchange.

However, I did go to GMU to get an MA in economics, and while I was there I took a course on institutional economics taught by John Nye, a founding member of the International Society for the New Institutional Economics. I took the class the year that Oliver Williamson won the Nobel Prize in Economics, and Professor Nye proudly pointed out that, with that, the first three ISNIE presidents all had Nobels. The other two were Ronald Coase and Douglass North.

Professor Nye is one of the smartest, most incisive thinkers I’ve had the honor to meet. Like so many young men in a theoretical field, I was quite confident I knew the answer to everything, and he always had a question ready that forced me to rethink everything from the beginning, more carefully. Mancur Olson seemed to me to present nothing but Revealed Truth, but Professor Nye sketched out three or four contradictory models that could reasonably be said to represent a particular passage in The Rise and Decline of Nations, showing how imprecise Olson could be. I had fun watching as he participated in a discussion with McCloskey, Mokyr, and Boudreaux last year.

So I confess to a guilty amusement at finding him mentioned by McCloskey in her paper, in a highly sarcastic manner:

The less dogmatic of the neo-institutionalists, such as Joel Mokyr and John Nye, seem on odd days of the month to believe in the North-Acemoglu pre-judgment that N -> G. No Ideas present. On even days the lesser-dogmatists calls ideas, D, “culture,” which is the vague way people talk when they have not taken on board the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories, and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians.

McCloskey’s paper finally clarified a confusion I had had since reading Bourgeois Dignity. I understood her point that institutions could not explain the Great Enrichment, because Great Britain had had basically the same institutions for a long time before its onset, and because such (or even better ones) institutions had existed many times in many other places throughout human history. What I did not understand was her point that the Enrichment was not caused by culture. She said instead that it was caused by a change in rhetoric. I did not really understand the distinction—to me, “culture” was simply the word that described everything that filled the gaps left by institutions. To say that the rhetoric about business had changed seemed to me no different from saying that there had been a particular change in the culture.

It’s now clear to me that coming at institutional economics from a GMU perspective is precisely why I had trouble grasping her framework. As she says, culture is often referred to as a sort of black box to explain the residual that was not explained by institutions. And institutions were treated as merely a bundle of incentives and game theoretic rules which guided utility maximizers into outcomes that they would not have arrived at on their own. Culture was expected to be something different, but not different in kind—there was always the implication that some sort of game theoretic guidance was probably going on there, too.

That is what McCloskey takes aim at in her paper, as well as many of the big names in the new institutional economics who don’t even include the hand-waving reference to culture. I think her critique is dead on, and what I like about it is that she really fleshes out the positive case for what institutions, culture, and rhetoric actually are. I was delighted to see her citing John Searle’s institutional ontology, as well as brain scientists, and I have basically been saying the word “conjective” wherever I can get away with it since reading the paper. It makes me even more eager to get my hands on Bourgeois Equality, the last book in here series which should go into this in greater depth, when it comes out.

The Literature? Which Literature Would That Be?

Paul points to an interesting review of a growing literature that makes a concerted effort to stop treating culture as a mere black box. I find this very interesting, because my own experience with the institutionalists lines up much more with McCloskey’s. The character of that literature is an assumption that, as Dan Klein puts it, knowledge is a flat thing that you either have or you don’t, without a place for judgment. Beliefs and ideas don’t enter into it at all, and institutions are just systematic levers of doling out pain and pleasure to achieve particular collective action outcomes.

But the review Paul cites seems to grapple with more dimensions than that. And it has 12 pages of citations; it really draws on a broad base of scholarship.

This brings me back to the discussion that Sam Hammond, Garett Jones, and a few others and I had on the nature of literatures in general. As a literature like institutional economics matures, it gets bigger and develops a lot of sub-literatures. Your perception of the general character of the literature will probably depend a lot on your entry point. For McCloskey from Chicago, and for me from GMU, we see the towering figures who started the field to begin with. I was surprised at the way McCloskey characterized Ronald Coase’s two famous papers in The Rhetoric of Economicsshe emphasized that Coase’s world was filled with talk, which is true. But it seems to me that you could see right in those papers the destiny of the fields that were to be inspired by his work. For if we take the equation that McCloskey gives us:

I get the price theory: price and property, the variables of prudence, price, profit, the Profane as I have called them, move people. But the point here is that they are also moved by the S variables of speech, stories, shame, the Sacred, and by the use of the monopoly of violence by the state, the legal rules of the game and the dance in the courts of law, the L variables. Most behavior, B, is explained by P and S and L, together:

B = α + βP + γS + δL + ε

It seems to me that Coase talked about at most a model where B = P + L. And certainly, P + L is superior to merely P, which characterized most of 20th century economics. And indeed, the fields inspired by Coase—Law and Economics, Institutional Economics, and Industrial Organization, to name but three—all had this character of assuming B = P + L.

Nevertheless, perhaps precisely because Paul is seeking to get up to speed on the latest literature rather than taking a course that provides a broader genealogy of the field, he found something that seems to be consciously trying to work McCloskey’s S into the equation. She commented, saying that she would check the paper out, and adding:

I’m very willing to believe there are others who are more aware of the force of culture (Joel Mokyr, for example, an ally of mine in emphasizing the role of ideas in economic history; Joel and Avner Greif are going to reply to my article). But “culture” is a vague word. I prefer to speak of particular ideas, such as equality of dignity.

I would bet that the people Paul mentions have made valuable contributions, but I’d also bet that McCloskey will be frustrated by their lack of engagement beyond the boundaries of economics or social science in general. Hence her taking to task Nye and Mokyr for not having “taken on board the exact and gigantic literature about ideas, rhetoric, ideology, ceremonies, metaphors, stories, and the like since the Greeks or the Talmudists or the Sanskrit grammarians.”

I wonder whether economics will ever be able to internalize such a broad-minded approach into its practice. Another option is already unfolding: McCloskey and others like her (such as frequent co-author Arjo Klamer) are contributing what is essentially an independent, alternative conversation that has grown into a literature in its own right. Whether that literature one day gains prominence among the big schools of economics is an open question. I’m a short term pessimist on that count, but I am certainly rooting for them.

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Unifying Moral Philosophy With Virtue Ethics

One of the things that is apparent when you begin reading virtue ethicists is that they seem to find arguments that rely on pointing out consequences alone to be distasteful. You can see why someone like Deirdre McCloskey would take that tone, when she works in economics, that last stronghold of utilitarianism. But such arguments often provoke dismissal—“virtue would be nice in an ideal world, but down here on the ground we have to deal with practical concerns.”

The distaste for argument-by-consequences isn’t held by virtue ethicists alone of course; it is also characteristic of many schools of deontology. The intellectual descendants of Kant believe that you should do your duty just because it is your duty. Virtue ethicists, however, argue that mere rule-following is not all there is to ethics. Aristotle pointed out that the very particularity of circumstances made the possible combination of factors too great to boil down to general rules. Navigating such particularities requires lived experience, and the development of phronesis; practical wisdom, translated into latin as prudentia, which became the English word prudence.

Virtue ethics as I understand it takes the best of consequentialism and deontology and integrates them into a much more human framework. Prudence, in the older sense of broad practical wisdom, includes within it the more modern sense of prudence, which is concerned solely with consequences and interest. As Albert Hirschman argued, even our notion of “interest” used to be much broader than it is now. Broader even than so-called “enlightened” self-interest which takes the long term into account, as opposed to myopic self-interest which is merely opportunistic. Given the unity of the virtues, a virtue ethicist ought to hold that consequences do in fact matter, they are just not all that matters.

Among the original cardinal virtues, and Aquinas’ famous seven, is justice; the virtue of always giving what is due. This seems to me to be the virtue of recognizing and acting on principles that have deontic authority—that is, the virtue of performing our duties. McCloskey’s recent paper on institutions has a good treatment on such deontic principles, which she argues are conjective in nature. Being able to distinguish the deontic from the merely suggested is, I think, also an important part of (the older sense of) prudence.

But why should anyone care about either consequences or duty? At bottom our desires and our reasons, no matter how seemingly rational, are grounded by some sort of faith. Some basic things we take for granted or hold dear to us, some things that cannot be rationally justified because they are themselves the basis of your justifications.

Prudence, justice, faith, courage, temperance, charity, and hope—ingredients for a meaningful life, for being the sort of person you can look in the mirror without shame. While seeing the wisdom in the accomplishments of consequentialist and deontologist thinkers, I believe that virtue ethics provides the best framework for grounding and making the best use of those accomplishments.