Bentham on the Brain

Right now, I’m looking at Richard Layard’s Happiness. He’s an unreconstructed Benthamite, and his view seems to be that evidence on the neurological reward system provides an account of objective utility. And because there’s a neurological correlate to utility, we should think of utilitarianism as the most scientifically respectable of all moral theories, and use it as a guide to social policy, in just the way Bentham intended.

This got me wondering: is the reward system unitary, with a single architecture, or is the reward system implicated in different ways by different cognitive programs or difference kinds of decision tasks. (One possibility is that pleasure/benefit is determined by different systems than pain/costs, and so it may not be that units of plan and units of pleasure trade off in any simple on-to-one sort of way.)

In this article from Nature Reviews, neuro-ethicist Bill Casebeer argues that a virtue-theoretic approach best captures what's going on in the brain. Moral judgment and motivation is not in all (most?) cases driven by judgments of utility. For example “hot” judgments in social contexts activating theory-of-mind systems probably don't implicate systems that would calculate either individual or collective expected utility.

This may be important for a number of reasons. The most interesting to me has to do with possible conflicts social policy that is designed to maximize expected social utility and the affective/motivational systems that actually drive behavior. Rawls’s argument against utilitarianism, in a nutshell, is that it is inconsistent with our “sense of justice” and thus utilitarian principles will not gain our willing compliance, and will therefore fail to establish a stable social order. The utilitarian can retort that motivational dispositions are a constraint that utilitarianism must take into account. But then it seems that the principles of utility basically end up mirroring the principles that underlie actual human motivation, which will be doing all the work. At which point it seems otiose to say that what we’re trying to do with policy is maximize happiness, when it would just be more accurate to say that we’re trying to come up with principles people take themselves to have a reason to endorse, where those reasons are only sometimes reasons of utility. The fact that the dopaminergic system or whatever lights up whenever we do whatever we do has nothing interesting to do with what we take to be valuable, or what we should be shooting for socially.

I guess I’m trying to say something to the effect that nothing about the brain actually helps a utilitarian like Layard justify a Benthamite approach to social policy. The reasons for rejecting utilitarianism were never that we don’t know where utility is in the brain, but that it wreaks havoc with native moral judgment and cuts against the grain of our motivational dispositions. Brain science helps us understand why this is the case. We are natural-born Aristotelians (or maybe Humean sentimentalists) unlikely to be moved by comprehensive schemes of utility maximization. Does anyone who might know think the evidence supports this argument?

Wealth is Weird

I've got a blog post-length comment on this post by Jonathan Wilde over at Catallarchy. This is what you get today.

I've got all sorts of interesting things stored up to report on & ruminate about. Gruter Institute conference on the values of the free enterprise system. AEI conference on neuro-morality. Drinks with Pinker. Hannah & Martin. Perhaps tomorrow, should I have world enough, and time (but if we're tearing our pleasures with rough strife thorough the iron gates of life, then forget it.)

You're So Vain-ology

Glen shows us again why he is an economist and not a poet in this post on “You're So Vain,” inspired by Tyler's exhumation of the perennial mystery. (This page is entertainingly un-useful for the “who is it about” question.)

On my intepretation, which is, of course, the natural and correct interpretation, “You're so vain, you probably think this song is about you” is a self-indictment, expressing frustration and emotional paradox.

Carly, or whoever the implied narrator is, obviously can't get the guy out of her dome. She wants to hate him because he was just as aware of his allure as she was, which was irresistable, which is why she fell for him and he “had her.” She was thrown when he dumped her. And she tries to console herself by pointing out how vain he is. But, it turns out, his vanity is really just a fair acknowledgement of his overwhelmingly attractive qualities, a form of confidence and self-possession that is itself attractive. And so pointing out his vanity is an implicit acknowledgement of everything she loved, and everything she grieves losing.

(By the way, people who go on and on about how great they are, like Quentin Tarantino and Phil Hellmuth, drive you crazy in a special way that only those who live up to their own ridiculous hype can.)

The fact that she's still thinking and writing songs about him and how goddamn beautiful/perfect/irresistable/vain he was “several years” after he “had her” substantiates his vanity (like his Lear jet and his horse “naturally” winning at Saratoga), which is maddening, and throws her right back into the cycle of love/resentment. He is in fact the kind of person people write songs about and can't forget. She wants to hate him for the fact that he knows it. But, no, that's just why she loved him. He's right. He's unforgettably terrific. If she could just forget him, she wouldn't be singing the song. But she can't, and the reason she's singing the song is precisely why fell so hard for him, and can't possibly get over the fact that he “gave away the things [he] loved and one of them was me.”

Right?

You're Invited

I've helped to put together a little theatrical field trip tonight for the America's Future Foundation's newly recussitated AFF Underground cultural series. There's a couple spots left for discount tickets, and you should email me if you want to come.

We'll be going to theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center to see the award-winning new play Hannah and Martin, by Kate Fodor. Hannah and Martin explores the intellectual and intimate relationship between celebrated philosopher and notorious Nazi, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th Century's most incisive theorists and critics of totalitarianism.

After the play, we will convene to Local 16, at the corner of 16th and U Streets for drinks and discussion of what promises to be intellectually provocative play.

Tickets are $25.00, five dollars off the regular price, and a merer $20.00 for AFF Founder's Club members, ten dollars off the regular price. (Why not become a Founder's Club member now?) AFF Underground has a block of only 30 seats, so act fast.

If you would like to claim a ticket, email me at willwilkinson AT gmail DOT com.

—-

Hannah and Martin
Thursday, June 2, 7:30 pm
Theater J, DC Jewish Community Center
1529 16th St NW

“Celebrated professor and philosopher Hannah Arendt is forced to confront charges that her lover and mentor, the venerable Martin Heidegger, is a Nazi sympathizer and must choose whether to indict or
forgive him. A sensual and deeply felt play of ideas that mines questions of forgiveness, academic independence, and the limits of loyalty when blinded by romantic desire.”

For more info: Theater J at the DC Jewish Community Center to see the award-winning new play Hannah and Martin, by Kate Fodor. Hannah and Martin explores the intellectual and intimate relationship between celebrated philosopher and notorious Nazi, Martin Heidegger, and Hannah Arendt, one of the 20th Century's most incisive theorists and critics of totalitarianism.

After the play, we will convene to Local 16, at the corner of 16th and U Streets for drinks and discussion of what promises to be intellectually provocative play.

Tickets are $25.00, five dollars off the regular price, and a merer $20.00 for AFF Founder's Club members, ten dollars off the regular price. (Why not become a Founder's Club member now?) AFF Underground has a block of only 30 seats, so act fast. Email Chris Morris at chris@americasfuture.org if you would like to claim a ticket.

Hannah and Martin
Thursday, June 2, 7:30 pm
Theater J, DC Jewish Community Center
1529 16th St NW

“Celebrated professor and philosopher Hannah Arendt is forced to confront charges that her lover and mentor, the venerable Martin Heidegger, is a Nazi sympathizer and must choose whether to indict or
forgive him. A sensual and deeply felt play of ideas that mines questions of forgiveness, academic independence, and the limits of loyalty when blinded by romantic desire.”

For more info, visit the page at Theater J.

[UPDATE: AFF's block of tickets at the discounted rate is now spoken for. However, if you're interested in coming and didn't get a discount ticket, you should still feel free to join us. Call the theater for tickets, meet us before in front of the JCC (7:15-ish), and join us for drinks and discussion afterwards at Local 16.]