New York, New York is a Conservative Town

When I rose from Penn Station into Manhattan late this July, I expected to be greeted by a horrible smell. With my two older boys in tow (Thomas, 13, and Jack, 10), I entered Manhattan for the first time in my life. Indeed, within seconds I did see one of the notorious mountains of garbage, a filthy homeless person, and the persistent grime all along the gutters and walks, but there was virtually no smell. Well, that’s not entirely true: the fragrance of halal food trucks wafted pleasantly, satisfying my desire for an exotic experience for myself and the boys. With the help of Airbnb and Adam Gurri, we had a blast. What a great city.

As for me, I was raised in the Southeast during the 70s and 80s, and I did my schooling in the Midwest during the 90s. All our previous family excursions, therefore, have been west of Buffalo (where I live now), and south. Moreover, I have been given an enormous prejudice against all things New York, which was, during my childhood, a toilet. And more than a toilet: New York City is the home of Woody Allen, that smarmy, condescending urbanite, the epitome of the intellectual counter-culture which expressed open disdain for American Exceptionalism. It turns out those of us who were offended by his ilk were exactly right.

New York City is also the home of National Review, still standing athwart history, gleefully yelling “Stop!”, to the disdain of liberals, leftists, and now, also Trumpists (whatever that is). My father, who, living in Springfield, Illinois at the time, danced a jig on Abraham Lincoln’s grave to celebrate my birth, had us read National Review throughout childhood, a habit I took with me to college and beyond. Therefore, I was daily formed by the founder of National Review, a snobbish Stamford denizen and Yale man who inherited enormous wealth from his father, an oil speculator and fomenter of revolution in Mexico, not quite the exemplar for Southern Gentility. Perhaps, then, my prejudices against Manhattan were due for a revisitation.

My wife and I were both raised in tourist towns, so we have learned how to enjoy tourist traps for what they are and also how to wander away from them. And wander we did. We boys hoofed it through huge chunks of Midtown and Lower Manhattan over the course of three days, exploring what we could, absorbing the sights, buying into the attractions. I was in particular attracted to the people. I wanted to lay eyes on exactly who it is that makes New York City the center of the universe, and thus proclaims it.

I rubbed my eyes in disbelief when I saw them: “These people are conservatives. This is a conservative town.” Capitalism lay naked throughout the city, one gigantic open market, freely flowing, constantly innovating. There was even a business which stored our luggage, for a fee, while we spent the day touring. I was especially dumbfounded by the women of the city. The women were wearing skirts and blouses, dresses, feminine frocks, with hairstyles evoking evolutionary responses commended by secondary sexual traits, not primary. Why, the women were almost as lovely to look at as the architecture and the high rises!

“Whence leftism?” I asked. Men and women alike are more conservatively attired than in any city I’ve ever visited or lived in, certainly more conservatively than Chicago, and I won’t do more than mention my little Buffalo. How is it that these conservatively-driven people are so bloody Marxist, a worldview which makes their lives (and mine) more difficult?

I did notice a weariness in the countenances of all these young people who were hustling for personal interest, pursuing happiness, so I asked Adam about it. He said, “We moved away from Manhattan to Brooklyn because even when we were inside, we felt like we had to be ‘on top of it.’ Even though we still work in Manhattan, we feel we have escaped for the evening when we come home.” I think Adam has expressed what is palpable: in Manhattan one must be diligently “on top of it;” otherwise, Manhattan lands on top of you. Indeed, of the millions who work in Manhattan every day, how many do not have a boss? And even those bosses, along with the many who are thoughtful enough to think it through, have shareholders as bosses, always demanding more profit, and, I can imagine from the Manhattanite perspective, those shareholders are fat, hayseed, ignorant do-nothings who weaseled their way into make-work union jobs somewhere in middle America, that vast wasteland between the Hudson River and LAX.

In other words, the pursuit of happiness is hard, and no other people experience the difficulties of achieving the American Dream within a well-regulated (such as it is) open market like those who labor and toil in Manhattan. To me, these people spearhead the American Dream with their tenacity and employ of personal talent. That much is readily apparent. The promise of Marxism (or Leftism, or Progressivism, or whatever you want to call redistributionist ideology) is seductive: this system can make your life a little easier; the unfairness of the open market–this system can equalize things; this system can ease the pain of the pursuit of happiness.

When a religious fundamentalist powers down the window of his gigantic house on wheels, idling with the air-conditioner running in some Wal-mart parking lot, to scream epithets about the clutching squeeze put on them by East Coast Liberalism (you communists!), I can imagine that roughly zero inhabitants of Manhattan are persuaded to see the error of their ways. I would never have thought that any other class of American could have been perceived as more arrogant or rude than a Manhattanite, but my mind has been dramatically changed: the experience was almost entirely civil, with the exception of rambunctious guided tour barkers and shouting Pentecostals. Nevertheless, there is some truth to the caricature: the constant need to be “on top of it” with respect to the very tiny island of Manhattan creates a framework for dealing with the rest of the country, and with the power Manhattan wields, it’s easy to see how resentment waxes against the Big Apple. Leave us alone with your socio-economic impositions, whydoncha? What you think makes life easier for you I know impoverishes me, and not just of money, but also of institutions which you may not have ever had, and of freedoms.

All in all, though, New York City is a thoroughly American city, and I am proud of New York City, an earnestly nationalistic pride of which I am not ashamed. “Yes, New York City is the greatest city in the world,” I’ll say, “an American city, the template of the American experience, warts and all, the most beautiful city in the world, inside and out.” I don’t want to live there, but I can see why eight million people do.



Autonomy or Autarky?

There’s a tension in liberalism when it comes to autonomy.

On the one hand, liberalism represents the thin set of rules that constitute the overlapping consensus, the implicit social contract between warring conceptions of the good made to share control of a political order. We accept liberal institutions, if only begrudgingly, because a) we recognize disputes over irreconcilable conceptions of the good are pointless, and b) we all stand to benefit from an expanded aperture of social cooperation.

This is the context in which Kant defined the concept of equal dignity. Though we may disagree with our neighbor’s way of life, dress or worship, we all have equal dignity through a common commitment to respect each other’s autonomy. Autonomy means moral self-constitution, or self-authorship: the freedom to chart one’s own course in life. To be treated as an end, and not as a means to an end, is to be left the constructor of one’s own ends, to conceive of whatever the good and just life means to you and to be left to pursue it.

Autonomy is neither hedonistic, nor atomistic. Autonomy is the subject and object of human reason, and acting in alignment with reason requires self-legislation, self-control, and obedience to the moral norms required of a civil and cooperative society. When whole societies of people are granted autonomy, an amazing thing happens: It creates the Kingdom of Ends, exemplified by the free market, where equal dignity is manifest in each and every commercial exchange.

But as time has worn on, an interesting thing has happened. The terms of the social contract seem to have become internalized as a conception of the good in their own right. That is, the political order, which emerged through conflict and error to sustain rivalrous conceptions of the good, has become mirrored in our sensory order. Liberal neutrality, rather than being a property of corporate institutions, percolates into an individual’s own faculty of judgment. Autonomy, rather than being an allusion to sectarian ceasefire, is reconstrued as a kind of end in itself.

There is no such thing as autonomy for autonomy’s sake. Autonomy gets its footing precisely through the way it enables, empowers and amplifies genuine, substantive conceptions of the good, irreconcilable though they may be. Autonomy for autonomy’s sake, in contrast, is without substance. It’s a purposive void.

More dangerously, this way of conceptualizing autonomy quickly becomes identified with lacking dependencies: romantic, familial, moral, and organizational dependencies. Yet being dependent on someone is not at all contrary to living an autonomous life. Mutual advantage presupposes interdependence. As do market exchange, specialization and the division of labor.

Fundamentally, this confuses autonomy for autarky. Autarky in economics is the refusal to trade. Translated to human psychology, autarky is the refusal to be vulnerable; to open one’s self to emotional and intellectual trade winds.

Self-reliance, it has been said, is just another word for poverty. So what will come of our psychic Juche? Will we move from a pluralistic Kingdom of Ends to a monastic Kingdom of Hermits? And what does the capacity to self-legislate look like when, morally speaking, we’re living out a hung jury?

Joshua Greene’s “Deep Pragmatism” is Deeply Problematic

I was only 16 at the time, but I had already developed a strong interest in moral psychology thanks to the lingering suspicion that ethics was a fatal weakness for philosophical naturalism. And so when Marc Hauser‘s now classic book Moral Minds first came out in paperback, I rushed to buy a copy.

The book was a detailed exploration of human moral cognition through the lens of trolley problem experiments and Hauser’s (now dubious) research with primates. And despite Hauser’s indefensible academic misconduct, it remains a tour de force.  In fact it is still in my possession, now twice as thick and stained by sunlight from multiple re-reads.

My original copy of Moral Minds still sits in my book shelf
My original copy of Moral Minds still sits in my book shelf

At the time I became convinced of Hauser’s basic approach that updated David Hume in light of Chomsky’s work on innate syntax. This view says that our moral sense is at base noncognitive, that it is a product of our “passions” or sensations built into us like a “moral organ”. While morality may often seem relative to culture and upbringing, it is constrained by a “universal grammar” common to all moral orders. That grammar, I believed, was the key to resolving the moral divergences between tribes. If we could only speak clearly about our shared inheritance there could be no lasting rational disagreements.

Joshua Greene’s “Deep Pragmatism”

Consider this a premonition of what Joshua Greene has since dubbed “deep pragmatism”. Greene is also a Harvard neuroscientist and expert on trolley problems, and his recent book Moral Tribes is also concerned about what he calls the “failure of common sense morality,” i.e. when divergent moral orders collide. While I am about to be quite critical of Greene, let me say at the outset that I am actually a massive fan, and that I tend to be most critical of the ones I love.

If it is fair to say Hauser’s theory merged Hume with Chomsky’s linguistics, then Greene’s theory merges Hume with Daniel Kahneman’s Dual Process Theory. He claims our non-cognitive passions are part of our System One, or automatic / intuitive mode. But if we study the evolutionary function of our passions, we can then use our System Two, or rational / conscious mode, to resolve impassioned disputes deliberatively. Specifically, Greene posits that if morality is fundamentally about enforcing cooperation in order to reap collective benefits, two tribes with distinct ethical systems for cooperation simply have to recognize that they are using different means but have common ends.

The only thing truly novel about Greene’s argument is its tantalizing terminology. Indeed, on a recent EconTalk episode Greene admits that “deep pragmatism” is just his word for plain vanilla utilitarianism. Despite formal utilitarianism’s many problems, Greene believes clashing cultures can settle disputes by consciously reformulating their ethics based on the greatest good for the greatest number. When pressed by the host with counter-examples, Greene contended that the problems with his proposal are either merely empirical or due to an insufficient application of utilitarianism (for thinking too short-term, say).

I believe Greene makes three fundamental mistakes and thus has not provided a compelling solution to the tragedy of common sense morality. On top of this, his scientific pretenses distract from the fact that his core moral arguments come straight from the proverbial arm-chair. Indeed, as meticulously demonstrated in Selim Berker’s The Normative Insignificance of Neuroscience, Greene has a tendency to obscure his philosophical presuppositions behind a fascinating and important, but ultimately tangential, deluge of empirical data.

The three deep mistakes Greene makes are: a) to accept the Humean starting point of moral noncognitivism, b) to reify deontological thinking and utilitarian thinking as “System One” and “System Two” respectively, and c) to leap to utilitarianism when, even accepting his premises, better alternatives exist.

Deep Problems:
a) Noncognitivism Is False

Noncognitivism rose in popularity after the Enlightenment in large part due to an incorrect Cartesian view that morality like belief required an ultimate foundation. Hume put foundationalism to the test by taking it to its logical conclusion. In lieu of an infinite regress, Hume realized that connecting ought to is was impossible. Thus noncognitivism — and thus moral skepticism. And while Hume’s argument and conclusion were valid, the premise that we need foundations in the first place was dead wrong.

Since Quine, philosophers have largely accepted coherentism for beliefs. That is, it makes most sense to think of any particular belief as inhabiting a holistic web of beliefs rather than to link beliefs in a linear chain of justifications down to some “foundational” belief. When we are persuaded to change our beliefs we thus often are required to update a large number of interdependent beliefs to ensure coherence.

It turns out the same Quinean argument works for desires, preferences and other vernaculars for Hume’s passions. It’s tempting to think of desires as following a linear chain down to some base foundational affect, implanted somewhat arbitrarily by evolution. But this is an elementary error.

While true that evolution has equipped us with certain somatic states (like hunger pangs), desire (like “I desire to eat”) contains propositional content. Like beliefs, desires are part of a holistic web that we draw from in the discursive game of giving or asking for reasons. In turn, desires like beliefs are capable of being updated based on rational argumentation and the demand for coherence.

For whatever reason ethicists have been much slower to embrace coherentism for morality, preferring to soak in tired debates like deontology vs consequentialism. Greene is no different. And his attempted foundationalist argument for utilitarianism has not closed Hume’s gap one iota.

b) Dual Process Theory is Irrelevant

Using fMRIs to conflate deontology with automatic thinking and consequentialism with deliberative rationality is neither valid nor advances the argument. To quote University of Toronto philosopher Joseph Heath in his overview of empirical approaches to ethics:

Greene offered no reason to think that the theory of value underlying the consequentialist calculus was not based on the same sort of emotional reactions. In this respect, what he was really doing was presenting an essentially sceptical challenge to moral reasoning in general, yet optimistically assuming that it undermined only the position of his opponents.

Moreover, there are good reasons for thinking of deontological modes of reasoning are essentially cognitive. As Heath argues in his book Following the Rules, social norms take the form of a web of deontic constraints that we reference just like when we reference beliefs or desires when pressed to defend certain behavior. This makes social norms — and deontology in turn — analytically cognitivist. That is, regardless of the fact that deontic violations are more likely to elicit an emotional response, deontic reasoning must still inherently make use of System Two at some point.

Greene even acknowledges the more plausible explanation for why deontological violations cause more emotional fMRI activity than utilitarian ones: namely, that they each require different kinds of construal. Utilitarian reasoning tends to be about system wide outcomes and that level of construal imposes a psychological distance between the agent and the moral dilemma. But even if there is a link between construal level and dual process theory, just because utilitarian thinking is slow does not make slow thinking utilitarian!

c) Utilitarianism is a Non-sequitur 

Even accepting all of Greene’s major premises, the conclusion of utilitarianism is still unwarranted. Greene suggests that the social function of moral psychology points to a “common good” through cooperation, but utilitarianism is only one possible interpretation.

In economics there are two basic approaches to social welfare, one top down and the other bottom up. The top down approach is the closest in spirit to the utilitarianism expressed by Greene. It posits a social welfare function and conditions that must hold for its maximization, aka the greatest good for the greatest number. Adherents of this approach have spanned centuries, from Bentham up to Pigou.

The other approach begins with the process of transaction itself. It posits that two people will only exchange if they each preceive a mutual advantage in doing so — that is, if the trade will move them toward a Pareto improvement or win-win outcome. This is at the heart of bargaining theory, which would presumably make it a good candidate for solving the “tragedy of common sense morality” or any scenario where conflicting interests or value systems collide.

Batalla - Sebastian Franck (1640)
Batalla – Sebastian Franck (1640)

One of the worse “tragedies of common sense morality” in history occurred in the 1600s when Protestants and Catholics fought throughout Europe in the 30-Years War. From the ruin rose modern Liberalism and the legal basis for religious toleration and value pluralism. Liberalisms core value is thus mutual advantage in the Paretian sense, not a crude formula for util maximization.

In fact there is a substantial literature within trolley problem research analyzing the effect of Paretian considerations on moral judgement. Greene is even a contributor. Indeed, in all sorts of artificial moral dilemma subjects are consistently more likely to judge harm as permissible if it leads to a Pareto improvement.

For instance, this 2011 paper [pdf warning] co-authored by Marc Hauser suggests that “Paretian considerations should be treated as an abstract principle that is operative in folk-moral judgment across a wide variety of contexts, involving different sources of threat and different degrees of contact.” Note that this fits the criteria for Greene’s “deep pragmatism” surprisingly well, without any of the attending controversy or highly demanding prescriptions surrounding Peter Singer style utilitarianism. Indeed, the authors are correct to report that Paretian considerations “provide a reason for action even for the non-consequentialist.”


Despite my skepticism for Joshua Greene’s “deep pragmatism” I strongly commend his efforts. In fact it is mostly in line with my own approach. Yet its current manifestation suffers from philosophical naiveté.

Humean noncognitivism is tempting for any student of psychology, but it turns out to be philosophically untenable. Indeed, by their very nature the deontic statuses we assign taboos and other social norms are part of a cognitive process of giving and asking for reasons. We can even reason and debate over our desires and preferences since (in contrast to pure affect) they carry propositional content.

Furthermore, while utilitarian calculations often require over-riding our more intense “gut reactions,” that does not make them any more foundational to morality. This is especially the case when it is always possible to interpret ostensibly utilitarian outcomes as resulting from a bottom up process that respects the Pareto standard.

And from the point of view of resolving tragedies of common sense morality, liberal principles like value neutrality and free expression that implicitly endorses Pareto have never been more influential on a global scale, nor more vital for our continued peaceful coexistence. The inferiority of the utilitarian alternative is shown in the recent attacks on free expression in Paris. Who today could defend Charlie Hebdo’s provocative iconoclasm on purely utilitarian grounds in a country of perhaps 6 million Muslims?

Finally, it important to remind ourselves that free expression as such is not a “Western Value” unique to the strategy of our hemispheric “tribe”. Rather, the Pareto standard of mutual benefit transcends the tribe and individual as the only proven basis for peaceful, pluralistic civilization.

Generality & the Boundary Conditions of Liberalism

Adam has a new post raising the problem of liberalism and neutrality:

Liberal Neutrality is the idea, embraced by people like Hayek, that the ideal of pluralism, the system it engenders, is itself ethically neutral.

I see two related concepts. The first sense of ‘liberal neutrality’ as the meta-value of pluralism, the value that others should be able to express their values. I’ve discussed the varieties of libertarian value neutrality before here.

The other sense of ‘liberal neutrality’ is what Hayek called the generality norm, or the principal that the rule of law should apply evenly and without targeting individuals or speciously discriminating groups.

One way to connect the two is to realize generality is, in James Buchanan’s words, “the sine qua non of law itself.” The neutrality of value pluralism relies on the generality of law, in the sense that a non-discriminatory set of rules shouldn’t favor one group over another (equality under the law). Buchanan argues that this is part of a social contract that gives the state and law legitimacy.

Hayek emphasized the generality of rule of law as well, though his was an evolutionary rather than contractarian account.  Here’s a quotation from Eugene Miller describing Hayek’s view as found in The Constitution of Liberty:

A command is an order to someone to take a particular action or refrain from it; and it presupposes someone who has issued the command. A law, by contrast, ‘is directed to unknown people,’ and it speaks in an impersonal voice. It abstracts ‘from all particular circumstances of time and place’ and ‘refers only to such conditions as may occur anywhere and at any time.’  …

The principle of generality does not, however, encompass the requirement that ‘any law should apply equally to all.’ A law might be general and yet make different provisions for different classes of persons and, where classes are defined narrowly, implicitly favour specific individuals …

Hayek’s case for freedom is not built around the idea of indvidual rights, but, nonetheless, rights are vital to his account of the Rule of Law. These are not to be understood as natural rights, in the Lockean sense, but as rights that have evolved historically and have found expression in various constitutional provisions.

This is closer to my own, historicist view. The extent to which law must be general is a function of its level of abstraction and thus what conceptual level of construal one is forced to assume, an “impersonal voice”. When designing rules or laws for a large population they must be “analytically egalitarian” and more or less utilitarian or risk making a category mistake. Hayek’s view was that his meant carefully designing institutions to maximize competition. Later he backed away from rationally constructing laws for competition for epistemological reasons. He still favored a decentralized legal process that ordered society towards its theoretical potential, as it were. Lets call it “laissez-faire within rules,” or “planning for freedom,” or “the boundary conditions of liberalism”.

What I like about that argument is that it relies solely on conceptual appropriateness (aka the ‘supervenience constraint’: conceptual properties ‘supervene’ to real properties). People can understand why “the house was happy” makes a kind of category error in the form of a metaphor. However, to say “the house was well ordered” at least connects a description (ordered) that can supervene to the object (a house). This is the same kind of attention Hayek makes when he argues against social justice. If you’re careful you can make some interesting arguments of this sort without ever becoming a moral realist.