Justice Ain’t Fairness & Some Redneck Economics

Let’s start here:

I want justice to mean Pareto-only not Kaldor/Hicks. That obviously does not work, because there are all kinds of Transitional Gains Traps out there. I usually go to the extreme of slavery. If you want to end slavery, then pay to free the slave. I’m focused on the idea of doing justice, as an individual, because I’m extremely skeptical about any political process’s ability to effect reforms that don’t create new injustices.


But I’m cool with Creative Destruction.

There lies an inconsistency.

Creative Destruction allows for new ideas to displace market incumbents without compensation for capitalized assets. That is, it is Kaldor/Hicks.

So I invent a new idea: “fairness.” (I probably picked this up from David Levy’s classes in Constitutional Political Economy and History of Economic Thought at GMU. That said, any errors or instances of “redneck economics” are my own.)

I define fairness as “that which will pass muster at the fair.” How convenient. How bourgeoisie. The fair, or the marketplace, can only survive and expand if new ideas are permitted to displace old ideas.

When one enters the fair one has to set one’s Pareto intuition about justice aside, and then pick up Kaldor/Hicks Creative Destruction fairness. There are different ethics for different settings.

Rawls tried to blend fairness and justice and just muddled both. The use of compensation to achieve abolition in Great Britain is hailed as a triumph of fairness applied to a circumstance of injustice. (But large chunks of the compensation went to the MP’s that approved it.) Behind a veil of ignorance I think most of us would approve different rules for the two settings.

Utilitarians and armchair philosopher-economists like to apply fairness as justice. My main concern with fairness as justice is that it perpetuates cycles of injustices. Perhaps we don’t see the cycle spinning so much because the Kaldor/Hicks losers from this approach don’t survive.

How would I have achieved abolition? I suggest that anyone who sympathized with a slave could pay out of his own pocket to free a slave. Many did this. Many slave-owners who came to sympathize with their slaves gave them writs of manumission. Often the state prohibited this, introducing a systematic collusive injustice.

But this creates a moral hazard. Buy a slave from a slave owner, and he will just buy another slave. Probably. Unless the slave-owner, who shares some sympathy with the manumitter, catches the sympathy for the slave from the manumitter. Is sympathy contagious? Can we close social distances through acts of sacrificial altruism? What happens in immigration debates when I self-righteously tout “They can live with me!”?

Prudence, Practical Wisdom, and Advisors

Please indulge me in some spitballing.

I really like Deirdre McCloskey’s take on the virtue of prudence as encompassing the economist’s rational self-interest and more. I think interest—understood in a way Hirschman would approve of—is indeed a part of virtue rather than outside of it.

But there’s a problem when McCloskey attempts to equate this with Aquinas’ prudentia which is the latin translation of Aristotle’s phronesis; practical wisdom. While McCloskeyan prudence is much bigger than prudence understood by Bentham or Samuelson or even Kant, it’s still not nearly so big as phronesis. And Aristotle clearly thought interest of this sort was outside of virtue—the ancient debate centered around whether “external goods” (for instance: wealth) were part of eudaimonia (a good life). No one thought that it was part of virtue.

But I agree with McCloskey that it is. I just don’t think that prudence is phronesis. Considering your interests is a part of wisdom but nowhere near the whole of it. So prudence is a subset of phronesis, possibly a distinct enough virtue to stand on its own.

Now, consequentialists—and consequentialistic frameworks like neoclassical economics—have put a lot of thinking into their Prudence Only theories, and this need not go to waste for the virtue ethicist. Their hard work has yielded a number of useful tools to take into consideration when thinking about the most prudent path.

Moreover, deontologists have invested in a lot of theories of justice which we may also take into account when attempting to be just.

Justice is the intersection of what Oakeshott calls self-disclosure and self-enactment—the former being subscribing to a moral language which involves principles, duties, and obligations, and the latter being doing something in the right way (with the right state of character; in short, being virtuous). Justice is the intersection because having the character trait of being just involves being able to properly apply the concepts of justice that we are embedded in, given our particular community and culture.

Drawing inspiration of Adam Smith’s less famous work, I suggested that we might get better at being just if we consider our choices from at least three perspectives.There’s our own, of course, and whoever we are dealing with, whose perspective we can approximately enter into using the faculty of sympathy. Finally, there’s the impartial spectator, whom I take to be a random member of our community who does not have any stake in the outcome of our decision. In other words, they’re only operating on a shared sense of justice as well as of virtue; their interests aren’t going to be impacted by the outcome.

I actually think we can extend our panel of advisors much further than this, though for any given decision we only have so much time to deliberate, and often have to rely on habituated reactions. But when we do have time, there are all sorts of perspectives we are able to enter into. When it comes to discussion, I have a mental table at which I try to seat many different points of view.

In fact the only way we are able to aim at virtue is by emulating role models; family and friends and teachers of course, but also characters in stories (fictional and otherwise). To me, the moral theories and economic models mentioned above are another sort of advisor; rather like consulting a computer model rather than a person (though obviously you can and should consult both).

Phronesis—that is, true practical wisdom—is taking all of these ingredients and at the end of the baking process producing eudaimonia.

The Virtue of Pickup Artists

In a recent discussion on whether moral philosophy can be useful, redditor Minutenewt had the following to say:

Do you wish to get rich? Do you wish to obtain the best looking women? Do you wish to lead a life of indolence punctuated by greed and rapacity? Then no, moral philosophy will only hold you back.

I think this gets it backwards. In my experience, my most successful friends are also some of the kindest and most conscientious people I know. Meanwhile, my loser friends take flagrant short cuts, and seem willing to expend all their social capital on short-term gains.

That’s not a successful strategy for the 21st century economy, where reputation sticks, and automation is driving up the premia on humanity’s remaining comparative advantage: sociability. Likewise, in the mating market, women seem to value confidence and extroversion, not being an anti-social jerk contrary to popular wisdom.

Take the writer Neil Strauss as a case study. To be perfectly clear, Strauss is a bald, nerdy looking guy who, when he laughs, makes weird chortle noises through his nose. Nonetheless, he is also an expert “pickup artist,” and author of The Game.

Now, while The Game was destined to become a kind of bible for rapacious creeps, I think of Neil Strauss as being in some sense maximally virtuous. That is, he uses an applied understanding of human nature and a high degree of meta-rationality to calibrate virtuous behaviours (self control, discipline, courage) toward — at least one definition of — flourishing.

You may not like his aims, but in the abstract Strauss is simply an expert in human persuasion. He picks up women by using euvoluntary techniques that make the women in question want to pick up him:

If there was anything I’d learned, it’s that the man never chooses the woman. All he can do is give her an opportunity to choose him.

Ethical argumentation works on the same principal. As Hume showed, prescriptive rhetoric lacks access to an ultimate “moral ought” to give itself foundation. And yet, it still has sway over human action. This can only be because effective arguments hit on the right moral aesthetics, encouraging a shift in perspective and motivation.

As further evidence that Strauss is a virtue ethicist in disguise, in a recent interview on the Tim Ferriss Podcast he was asked to name the one book he loves so much that he gives copies away. His response: On the Shortness of Life by the infamous stoic Seneca the Younger. What does stoicism have to do with picking up women? Evidently, quite a lot.


Continue reading “The Virtue of Pickup Artists”

The Kind of Person You Are

Double-D paints the picture of an embittered, angry old man making life unpleasant for others for selfish reasons. He wonders how philosophy is supposed to help him talk to such a person.

As it trickles down, I’ve got to figure out what question to approach someone like Grandpa Gesticulations: “Are you a neo-Kantian fusionist with Foucault’s Post-modernity (Star Trek), or are you more in the Existentialist Woven Horizons camp (Star Wars)?”

The best morality is vulgar morality. If philosophy creates a wall outside of which we cannot talk to normal people, then philosophy is an impediment rather than a tool to moral progress or even basic moral operation.

Part of what draws me to virtue ethics is precisely that it provides a language for talking about morality that is wholly accessible  to most people even if they’ve never cracked open a book of philosophy in their lives. People balk at the categorical imperative but have a pretty good idea what you mean and what you expect of them when you tell them they are behaving like a coward.

Virtue ethics delves deep into a question that we all have a very close, emotional connection with—what kind of person do you want to become? What kind of person can you become?

David doesn’t have to invoke Aristotle or Acquinas in order to ask the grumpy gentleman or the less than noble members of his communities if this is really the person they had hoped to become.

8 Sweet Ways to Achieve Eudaimonia

In an effort to boost our page views with pleasure to the reader, and now that the fever has passed (thanks to Spivonomist’s cool, damp, washcloth), I thought I’d celebrate by transmogrifying Sweet Talk into Sweet Buzz. Lists are cool because, you know, reading. If I had some real wherewithal, I’d conjure up some animated GIFs to squeeze out some extra lulz. But without further ado, here’s how you can achieve eudaimonia. Continue reading “8 Sweet Ways to Achieve Eudaimonia”

The Diminishing Marginal Utility of Navel-Polishing

Double D forwards an Aristotelian lament: ‘I would like to be able to improve my ability to apply what I’m learning from the Sweet Talk folks.”

In other words, what good is theory without practice, what good is #phronesis without #eudaimonia, what good is armchair philosophy? How long shall I pick the fluff of justice out of my bellybutton before I cowboy up and act with honor, courage, temperance, wisdom, and professionalism in the world of hockey fights, subway frotteurism, and militarized police?

Boy oh boy, what I wouldn’t give for a nice little nostrum, an inspiring bit of practical advice for the ordinary citizen looking to scale the summit of Maslow’s pyramid. 

I have no such advice. Moreover, it would be presumptuous of me to offer any. Virtue is personal and subjective. This isn’t to say that anything goes, but rather that on the margin, it cannot be up to me to tell you whether you’re acting harmoniously, in accordance with the highest virtues, or if you will be remembered for your good deeds. The voyage towards #arete is mere tourism if you let someone else grip your tiller (lol).

You’re right, David. There are diminishing returns to introspection. But there is some heavy mind lifting to be done in translating the virtue ethics into the applications of economics and the topsy-turvy world of abundance that would have flabbered the gast of Plato and Aristotle. Thank you for helping with that, my friends.

Feeling the Anger Flow

Last night at my older son’s hockey game (yes, June 25. We play hockey year round in the Niagara Frontier), anyway, last night at my son’s hockey game stood a man of about sixty, maybe seventy, watching intently his son or grandson play goalie. Well, to his great displeasure, my son’s team scored about twenty goals against him; by any goalie measure, that’s a bad night. After the first goal, I cheered, and this man glared at me. That’s not a good sign. And then he breathed in my general direction. From ten yards away, in a well-ventilated building with the ventilation pointing the other way, he literally gave me the vapors. The mom standing next to me looked at me as if I were the one coming to a kids hockey game completely fractured. I made eye gesticulations to indicate that it was not me. After a few goals, gramps left the building, then came back, and he breathed on us his spirits. Holy Moses! And then he himself began to make gesticulations indicating his deep dissatisfaction with his goalie grandson. It is safe to say that this man is an angry man.

It has become my lot in life that, two or three days a week, I deal with people whose best condition is hung-over. It’s not a terribly pleasant vocation, but it gives me the opportunity to put my morality where my mouth is–or, to be less flippant, to actually engage the human condition at some level, being a moral person amidst people who, at best, struggle with morality. Now that’s a tendentious statement; nevertheless, in that particular community, I am to all persons involved functioning as Morality. Police officers function as Justice. And so we make a triangle. The problem is that Justice is often angry, desirous to punish, Morality is indignant, desirous to condemn, and the guilty parties, the filthy corner of the triangle, are belligerent, pitiful, pathetic. They are, it might be said, functioning as Anger; they bring the anger of the whole world into our context. That’s a whole lot of anger. It spreads. I am not immune to the flow of anger.

Hence my deep interest in Adam Gurri’s little post on Justice, and my even broader interest in the Sweet Talk blog. Here is where, I hope, the disparate theoretical fields we bring to the social gathering, drink in hand, smiles in greeting, we can help each other in application.

One of my favorite teachers, espousing to us the wonders of Deconstruction, was put on the defensive by a recalcitrant fundamentalist, a.k.a. post-Enlightenment Modernist, who said, “All this is great in theory, but it won’t work in practice.” My teacher retorted, “Good theory makes good practice.” Man, did I love that. He’s absolutely right. Nevertheless, I also love the critique against contemporary philosophical inquiry, which, as I see it, is interested in the inquiry for inquiry’s sake. It is, as it were, good theories to make even better theories. I think Adam Gurri explained it to me as “Blackboard Economics,” or some such, as it trickles down.

As it trickles down, I’ve got to figure out what question to approach someone like Grandpa Gesticulations: “Are you a neo-Kantian fusionist with Foucault’s Post-modernity (Star Trek), or are you more in the Existentialist Woven Horizons camp (Star Wars)?” Or whatever. You get the point. I’m being silly.

I suppose I want to know the why of why we ask why. That is not to say I want to be the fellow who finally finds the shut-off valve for the flow of anger in the universe, but I would like to be able to improve my ability to apply what I’m learning from the Sweet Talk folks. There’s an angry human being on the other end of the telescope who knows nothing about Hume or Hegel or Kierkegaard. The application context, in other words, is the one that can get folks hurt.


As it happens, while I was composing this, Spivonomist posted this helpful insight over at Euvoluntary Exchange. I didn’t know economists were allowed to read Shakespeare. Seems unjust.

Talk About The Passions

The Stoics give it a shot–at least Seneca the Younger does: talking about the passions. In defining anger, he plays the good Stoic, removing anger from man’s nature altogether; it is an alien characteristic.

Perhaps that isn’t fair: “Man’s nature,” he says, “is not desirous of inflicting punishment.” Inflicting punishment, you see, is the Aristotelian definition of anger with which he cites almost complete accord. Anger, therefore, is not in accordance with man’s nature. Is that fair to the Stoics? I think so.

Are the Stoics being fair to the human experience? I don’t know. I do know, however, that we at Sweet Talk talk an awful lot about virtue, about justice, about honor, and other abstractions. I mean, I’ve been pecking away at AG’s perfectly innocent little post on Justice for two days, now, and I realize that I’m just digging around for nothing, as I told him offline, maybe, finally, for some worthless crystal-nugget of enlightenment. Who knows? Indeed, mine is a pure intellectual pursuit. If I gain intellectually, what gain?

Philosophers seem readily able, armed with massive libraries, to speak with all due palaver on empty prayers and empty mouths, but I don’t know that we have much in the way of philosophical repositories to do the work of speaking about the entire human experience. It’s a tyranny, of sorts, to put the desires of the gut into the hegemony of the intellect. We have made an easy move relegating passions as primal responses to environmental stimuli, but the Stoics recognized that such a passion as anger is not found in the wild kingdom; it is unique to the human experience.

Likewise love. Come to think about it, so is justice, honor, virtue, etc.

“Easy,” as I write above, is a pejorative term, and I mean for it to be. I suppose the long and short of this post is somewhere in this question: Is it ideal that the intellect should rule passions? We certainly like it that way, but Plato’s Divine Maxim requires it not to be so.

Might I suggest, as my tantrum subsides, that newfangled category all the kids are dancing to these days: human dignity. Can we talk more about that?

The Three Perspectives of Justice

The view from nowhere does not exist; it is accessible to no one.

I think that justice—the character trait—is arrived at through a lifelong dialogue among three points of view.

The first is your own, honed through proper notions of prudence, courage, temperance, charity, inheritance and hope.

The second is the person or people you are trying to figure out what you owe, or what they owe you. Hume’s faculty of sympathy, or what we call sympathy today plus what we call empathy, is your primary tool here, as well as a lifetime of experience attempting to understand yourself and others.

The final one is Smith’s impartial spectator; impartial not in the sense of objective but in the sense of not being partial, not having a stake in the outcome.

All three are in a way mental constructs, as we must have mental models of ourselves, the people we are dealing with, and an imagined impartial judge observing the matter. And all three require nourishment through use and persistent critical evaluation over time.

You arrive at just decisions through the effective weighing of the claims made by these inner agents; you become truly wise when these inner constructs closely approximate real people who exist outside of your mental world.