Who Needs George Lakoff?

Schopenhauer knew everything there was to know about framing:

If the conversation turns upon some general conception which has no particular name, but requires some figurative or metaphorical designation, you must begin by choosing a metaphor that is favourable to your proposition. For instance, the names used to denote the two political parties in Spain, Serviles and Liberates, are obviously chosen by the latter. The name Protestants is chosen by themselves, and also the name Evangelicals; but the Catholics call them heretics. Similarly, in regard to the names of things which admit of a more exact and definite meaning: for example, if your opponent proposes an alteration, you can call it an innovation, as this is an invidious word. If you yourself make the proposal, it will be the converse. In the first case, you can call the antagonistic principle “the existing order,” in the second, “antiquated prejudice.” What an impartial man with no further purpose to serve would call “public worship” or a “system of religion,” is described by an adherent as “piety,” “godliness”: and by an opponent as “bigotry,” “superstition.” This is, at bottom, a subtle petitio principii. What is sought to be proved is, first of all, inserted in the definition, whence it is then taken by mere analysis. What one man calls “placing in safe custody,” another calls “throwing into prison.” A speaker often betrays his purpose beforehand by the names which he gives to things. One man talks of “the clergy”; another, of “the priests.”

Nothing new under the sun.

Contractarian Functionalism – PosnerBlogging: Take Two

Let me say that I think the world of Judge Posner. I agree with him much more than I disagree with him. I do think that Posner's pragmatism is over done, but I generally admire his anti-rationalism, which I take to be generally Hayekian in spirit. He complains constantly about the tendency of intellectuals to imagine that a society run by intellectuals would be better than what we now have, and he is right to complain.

But I want to riff off a few of Posner's thoughts on academic moral philosophy and related topics he's broached over at Leiter's.

Let's start with this:

But should the Constitution, or political philosophy, be understood to prescribe utilitarianism, whether in the Benthamite or J. S. Mill versions, or maybe “secular humanism,” as our civic religion? That might depend on the character of morality, on what kind of normative order morality is, exactly. Specifically, on whether it must be reasoned, functional, practical, articulably derived from or related to some unexceptionable social goal. Well, much or even most morality seems based, rather, on instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, or ideology, rather than on widely shared social goals. Think of the absolute prohibition of infanticide in contrast to the far more tolerant view of even late-term abortions. Think of the prohibition of bullfighting, cock fights, and cruelty to animals generally. Think of the rejection in our society of the Islamic punishment code, public nudity, polygamy, indentured servitude, chain gangs, voluntary gladiatorial combat, forced redistribution of wealth, preventive war, torture, the mutilation of corpses, sex with corpses, sex with nonobjecting animals, child labor, duelling, suicide, euthanasia, arranged marriages, race and sex discrimination. Are there really compelling reasons for these unarguable tenets of the current American moral code? One can give reasons for them, but would they be anything more than rationalizations? They have causes, that history, sociology, or psychology might elucidate, but causes are not reasons.

Now I am going to do some of the theorizing that Posner pretends to deplore, but likes to do himself.

I can think of three basic models of social order. On the Leviathan model, order is achieved through the constant threat of coercion. On the consensus model, order is achieved through near universal agreement about social goals, and on the instruments to those goals. On what I'll call the Scots-Austrian or liberal model, order is achieved through the coordination of individuals acting in pursuit of their own goals on regular patterns of individual behavior.

Now, Scots-Austrian order, what you might call liberal order (as opposed to the other types: authoritarian and communitarian order), may require some structural threat of coercion, to provide the assurance of general compliance with certain norms/rules necessary for the individual's confidence in the rationality her voluntary compliance. But individuals are motivated to comply not because they are coerced, but because compliance is in their interests on the condition that most everyone else complies. In contrast, individuals living under a Leviathan comply because they are afraid of being punished by Leviathan.

Furthermore, Scots-Austrian order requires a kind of consensus, within limits. That is, Scots-Austrian order needs the absence of concerted attempts to disrupt the behaviorial regularities that subserve the order. Yes, this is vague. But here is the point. Scots-Austrian order doesn't require consensus, per se, just the absence of interference with the order. And there are an infinite number of possible combinations of reasons why one might be motivated to act in accordance with the regularities that constitute the order.

I call this view “contractarian functionalism.” Imagaine a certain macro-level pattern of social order as a computer program. And think of the beliefs, preferences, norms and so forth that animate individuals as lines of code in the program. Now, as we all know, you can get the same program, the same set of macro-level functions, from wildly different sets of code.

As Posner rightly says, “much or even most morality seems based, rather, on instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, or ideology, rather than on widely shared social goals.” Absolutely. This is a nice list of the ingredients of social order. Yet only certain combinations of these ingredients can sustain a Scots-Austrian or liberal order. Yet ANY of these combinations will do. If we want a word processor, Word, WordPerfect, AbiWord, OpenOffice or whatever will do. If we want liberal order, any of the suitable combinations of instinct, emotion, custom, history, politics, and ideology will do. Each program and each social order will have different underpinnings, but each will perform the same basic functions.

That's why contractarian choice of the basic general structure radically underdetermines ground-level policy choice.

Posner muses:

When a brilliant philosopher like Rawls gets down to the policy level and talks about abortion and campaign financing and the like, you recognize a perfectly conventional liberal and you begin to wonder whether his philosophy isn't just elaborate window dressing for standard left liberalism.

I don't think Rawls's philosophy is “elaborate window dressing.” Rawl's views on abortion and campaign finance may or may not be consistent with his conception of liberal order (what he called a “well-ordered society”). Whether or not it is is largely a question os social science, and I think it is a major Kantian flaw in Rawls that he consistently underplayed the importance of empirical social science, although his theory in principle recognizes its importance. Anyway, it is certainly plausible that Rawls's policy-level views are a feasible implementation of a Rawlsian well-ordered society. Yet there may be other feasible implementations of Rawls's conception of a well-ordered society, in which case Rawls's general theory is not simply a “rationalization” of his particular policy preferences.

Posner again:

. . . the sort of political discussion in which political philosophers, law professors, and other intellectuals engage is neither educative nor edifying; I also think it is largely inconsequential, and I am grateful for that fact.

One of the interesting things about contractarian functionalism is that it makes quite clear that even if contractarian functionalism, or some other theory, identifies the objectively best kind of society, this does not entail that the everyone should share the same moral beliefs, or even logically consistent moral beliefs. The truth about the good may be indifferent to whether people believe the truth about the good.

The Straussians may be right, and it could be the case that it is useful to provide people with stirring sermons about their god-given rights, even if the idea of a god-given right is nonsense. The interesting work for moral and political theorists is to determine whether hypotheses like these are the case.

What are the properties of the most desirable kind of social order? (Desirable to whom? To us, silly.) What kinds of beliefs, norms, instincts, and so forth support that kind of order. On the basis of such knowledge, we might quite usefully come to know what sort of thing it is worth exhorting people to believe, what sorts of norms it is worth defending, even if they seem arbitrary and irrational, and what sorts of cultural enthusiasms we should attempt to dampen. From the persepctive of the contractarian functionalist, we could cite genuine reasons for sustaining our prejudices and appreciating our rationalizations. We could become instances ofthat Hayekian enigma: the progressive conservative.

Prescott on Rebuilding Social Security

It's a shame that this Edward Prescott op-ed is behind the WSJ wall. Prescott (who won the economics Nobel this year)argues that mandatory investment accounts with limited investment options are necessary to solve the time inconsistency problem with savings.

Readers of this page will recall that I have made this proposal in a previous essay, but readers may also recall a letter that questioned an assumption I make about consumer behavior. In effect, the reader asked how, on the one hand, I consider people so irrational that they have to be forced to save, and, on the other hand, I consider people rational enough to manage their own retirement accounts.

But this question reveals a misunderstanding of the time inconsistency problem. The reason we need to have mandatory retirement accounts is not because people are irrational, but precisely because they are perfectly rational–they know exactly what they are doing. If, for example, somebody knows that they will be cared for in old age–even if they don't save a nickel–then what is their incentive to save that nickel? Wouldn't it be rational to spend that nickel instead.

Of course, a libertarian would prefer a system of neither mandatory investment nor wealth transfer. But if we're going to get one or the other, I think the paternalism of mandatory investment is better on libertarian terms than expropriation and redistribution. Property rights are not unitary; they are a bundle. Mandatory investment restricts liberty over some sticks in the bundle, but the overall right to one's earnings are preserved. In redistribution, one's right is just straightforwardly violated–one loses the whole bundle. If we have the chance to implement a policy that involves a small violation of liberty but which will replace or prevent the implementation of a policy that would involve a larger violation of liberty, we should do it. Mandatory accounts help preseve an ethos of self-responsibility, which I think is crucial for a healthy society. And if the policy has overall superior economic consequences to the alternatives, as does mandatory investment, that is another strong reason to support it.

The rest of Prescott's op-ed is full of plain good sense. He deflates worries about truck drivers runing themselves by “gambling” on the market, and Wall Street firms gouging the naive folk with gigantic fees. And he points out the ridiculousness of “Cassandra[s] screeching about evil policy makers and cranky politicians who are out to destroy Social Security.” As Prescott rightly notes, Social Security is simply bad policy. We have the opportunity to replace it with a better policy. So we should replace it.

David Schmidtz Lives on Left2Right!

I'm thrilled to see that David Schmidtz has started posting at left2right. As his inclusion on L2R attests, Dave is one of the best political philosophers of his generation. Additionally, he's one of the nicest people you'll ever meet. And he knows a lot of about birds and cacti and so forth. Our hike through the Arizona desert in October was one of the highlights of my year.

In his first two posts, Dave discusses egalitarianism and meritocracy. I suspect that these topics get a thorough discussion in his important forthcoming book, The Elements of Justice.

In other L2R news, I found Ross Douthat's Weekly Standard piece fairly ridiculous. Some of what Ross says is true. The posts on L2R sometimes give off the stale odor of the cloister. But L2R is interesting and praiseworthy precisely because here are a bunch of academics who have decided to stop talking just to themselves, to stop just assuming that their ideas have automatical appeal, and to rethink some of the dogmas of liberalism in public. It's nice to see liberal academics actually do some public deliberation, rather than just talk about doing it.

PosnerBlogging: Take One

Posner's first post over at Leiter's is full ot good stuff for a philosophoblogger to philosophoblog about. Let's do it in order. First paragraph:

Brian said I’m an atheist, but the word has two distinct meanings. The first is a person who does not have a sense that there is a God–who, in short, is not a religious person. The second is a person who adheres to the doctrine that there is no God. That is a metaphysical proposition that does not interest me. You cannot convince a religious person that there is no God, because he does not share your premises, for example that only science delivers truths. There is no fruitful debating of God’s existence.

I think someone is an atheist if God (or the properties definitive of God) isn't in their ontology. That's it. The difference between someone who goes around insisting that our best theory of the world doesn't need to quantify over God-properties, and someone whose theory of the world just doesn't quantify of God-properties doesn't establish a difference in the meaning of 'atheist'. The difference between someone who goes around telling anyone who will listen that Jesus is their personal lord and savior and someone who just believes it doesn't establish a difference in the meaning of 'Christian'. There are different kinds of atheists and different kinds of Christians, but 'atheist' and 'Christian' mean just one thing.

Second, the world proves Posner wrong. There is fruitful debating of God's existence. People can and are debated into and out of belief in God. I am quite sure that one can find foremerly religious people who were convinced that there is no God. Posner may be right that most people stick to their prejudices and won't accept a good argument to the contrary if it hits them in the face. But his claim is way too strong. My own change in belief had something to do with reasoning, not just some perturbation of animal spirits.


I have a piece today in the Philadelphia Inquirer [registration required] on the “starve the beast” theory of taxation and fiscal discipline.

The philosophical thrust:

For many libertarians and conservatives, cutting taxes is about more than efficiency; it's about morality. We have a moral claim to the fruits of our labor. Every cent the government takes from us beyond what is strictly necessary to secure our basic rights is a token of injustice. Cutting excess taxes is rectification, a way of making abused taxpayers whole. Therefore, for many proponents of smaller government, passing up a chance at a tax cut, or, worse, defending a tax increase, is a willing perpetuation of injustice.

However, if further tax cuts would accelerate deficit spending, justice would be threatened. Under present conditions, further tax cuts would largely be tax shifts, moving the burden of government spending to future generations. And there is nothing notably moral about raising taxes on the future to subsidize the present.

Rorty Phones It In

Richard Rorty's paper, “Philosopher-envy” in the new Daedalus issue on human nature is just trash. You'd think that someone who has given up rational argumentation would be a better rhetorician. Instead, Rorty seems like he's just phoning it in. The sophism is almost too transparent to count as sophism. He must be tired. The paper smells like death.

Rorty goes after evolutionary psychology — Pinker in particular. His general argument has this form:

Everything the Pinkerites say is painfully obvious, we don't need science to tell us what we already know, and nobody really disagrees with it. Also, it is totally irrelevant, so who cares? Hey, let's try socialism! Why not?

Here is Rorty on the idea of a theory of human nature:

What these philosophers doubt [that is, what Rorty, via the usual Rorty-ized history of philosophy sock puppets, doubts] is that factoring out the role of genes in making us different from one another, or tracing what we have in common back to evolutionary needs of our ancestors, will give us anything appropriately labeled 'a theory of human nature.' For such theories are supposed to be normative — to provide guidance.

Nope. No argument forthcoming. So, I will powerfully counter-assert: a theory of human nature is NOT supposed to be normative. Take that Richard Rorty! A theory of human nature, or at least a theory of homo sapiens is supposed to tell us what we are like and how we got to be that way. Such theories need tell us no more about what we ought to be like than the theory of the big bang need tell us what the universe ought to be.

Science can tell us a lot about the space of possibility, however. And because 'ought' implies 'can', there is a straightforward link from the descriptive to the normative. Because a theory of human nature can tell us a lot about what we can't do, and what won't work, we can learn a lot about what we shouldn't do.

Now Rorty will probably want to say that there is no fact of the matter about what we are like and how we got that way, or that we have no objective access to the facts (what's a fact!), and that there are just stories, and that any story we tell is going to be infected with all sorts of normative assumptions, and so our theory will just be a moralizing fairy tale anyway. So why not cut out the descriptive song and dance and go straightaway to talking about how we ought to live? But Rorty doesn't make this argument.

He just wants to say that whatever we find out about the constitution of human beings, it doesn't make any difference. Which is plain stupid.

Rorty argues that

The question “Is our humanity a biological or a cultural matter?” is as sterile as “Are our actions determined or do we have free will?” No concrete result in genetics, or physics, or any emprical discipline will help answer either bad question. We will go right on deliberating about what to do, and holding each other responsible for actions, even if we become convinced that every thought we have, and every move we make, will have been predicted by an omniscient neurologist. We will go right on experimenting with new lifestyles, new ideas and new social institutions, even if we became convinced that, deep down, everything depends on our genetic makeup.

Now, I agree, with caveats, with the point about free will. But the parallel to biology's relation to “social experimentation” is just so transparently bad that we've got to wonder why Rorty's even bothering. Does he assume that members of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences are retarded?

In one sense he's of course right. Yes. We will continue experimenting, no matter what we think about ourselves. But that's not his point. He's implying that our experimentation will go on unaffacted by our biological beliefs in the way that our practices of assigning praise and blame are unaffacted by our beliefs about free will. Yet, obviously if we come to sincerely believe, via good science, that some lifestyles and social institution are bound for failure we will tend not to try them. And that can be a huge blessing for humanity.

People in North Korea are eating each other because other people sincerely believed Marx's theory that the human essence varies with the socio-economic context in which it is embedded. It's not just that some preferences are endogenous to social structure (no doubt true), but that human psychology as such is endogenous to social structure, and so human psychology cannot be an exogenous constraint on “experimentation.” This is probably the deadliest idea in human history. And it's just incredibly hard to give credence to the idea that it makes no difference whether or not we discover that some social goals are impossible due to they way that people are

When Pinker draws on some finding of evolutionary psychology to make some kind of social point, Rorty dismisses it as old news. Science tells us nothing we didn't already know. “Pinker describes facts familiar to Homer and Herodotus as exhibiting 'nonobvious aspects of human nature.'” Rorty implies that if Homer and Herodotus have said it, then it must be obvious. But, no, Homer and Herodotus have stood the test of time because of their insight, their ability to illuminate nonobvious truths about ourselves. And of course, others have made claims about human nature diametrically opposed to those of Homer and Herodotus. And so evolutionary psychology is quite usefully helping to settle the argument.

The kernel of Rorty's bad argument comes in this passage:

Post-Galilean science does not tell us what is really real or really important. It has no metaphysical or moral implications. Instead, it enables us to do things that we had not previously been able to do. When it became empirical and experimental, it lost both its metaphysical pretensions and the ability to set new ends for human beings to strive for. It gained the ability to provide new means.

There are too many things wrong with this passage to enumerate. Modern science is full of metaphysical implications. If our best theory quantifies over something, then modern science is telling us that that something is “really real.” And it's hard to follow how enabling us to do things we couldn't do before has no moral implications. Morality is about thinking about what to do. And if new things keep showing up in the feasible set, due to scientific innovation, then we have more options open to us — more things that we might do. That's just straightforwardly morally relevant. And, to take another tack on it, a billion people may well have starved to death had it not been for Borlaug's “green revolution.” Whether or not a thousand million people live or die is a matter of no moral relevance?

Of course, what Rorty is trying to say, in his amazingly cavalier fashion, is that science can't pin down what exactly we should be aiming at. And, yes. But that's incredibly boring.

Rorty goes on:

But every so often a scientist like Pinker tries to have it both ways, and to suggest that science can provide empirical evidence to show that some ends are preferable to others.

This doesn't follow. I agree that science doesn't establish ultimate ends. But everything that is not an ultimate end is not merely a means. Some ends are partly constitutive of ultimate ends. And science can help us understand which ends together may succesfully constitute our ultimate end(s).

A physicist can provide an architect with evidence that a certain kind of structure will necessarily collapse. Now, the physicist doesn't tell us whether to prefer non-collapsing or collapsing structures. But she can tell us that if you want a non-collapsing structure, don't do this. Similarly, if we want individual happiness, or a stable social order that minimizes suffering, say, then we need science to tell us what constitutes happiness, what the empirical conditions for social order are, etc. And science can be extremely helpful in ruling things out.

That's why, I guess, Rorty is so antagonized by the whole business of actually finding out about what people are really like. It may turn out that his arational political commitments are precisely the sort of thing that get ruled out. And we can't risk that.

Here's his conclusion:

The dreams of socialists, feminists, and others have produced profound changes in Western social life, and may lead to vast changes in the life of the species as a whole. Nothing that natural science tells us should discourage us from dreaming further dreams.

[link added]

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth.