Moral Minds

Richard Rorty's review of Marc Hauser's Moral Minds is pretty good. Hauser argues for a fairly strong moral nativism, involving a dedicated moral capacity, analogous to a Chomsky-style linguistic capacity. (Rawls floats the idea in Theory of Justice.) Rorty's pretty widely known, but not a lot of non-philosophers know he was a top-flight philosopher of mind back when he was a philosopher (one of the first eliminative materialists), and he makes a pretty good case against the Chomsky analogy:

Hauser thinks that Noam Chomsky has shown that in at least one area — learning how to produce grammatical sentences — the latter sort of circuitry [i.e., general purpose] will not do the job. We need, Hauser says, a “radical rethinking of our ideas on morality, which is based on the analogy to language.” But the analogy seems fragile. Chomsky has argued, powerfully if not conclusively, that simple trial-and-error imitation of adult speakers cannot explain the speed and confidence with which children learn to talk: some special, dedicated mechanism must be at work. But is a parallel argument available to Hauser? For one thing, moral codes are not assimilated with any special rapidity. For another, the grammaticality of a sentence is rarely a matter of doubt or controversy, whereas moral dilemmas pull us in opposite directions and leave us uncertain. (Is it O.K. to kill a perfectly healthy but morally despicable person if her harvested organs would save the lives of five admirable people who need transplants? Ten people? Dozens?)

According to Chomsky, the parameters of the universal linguistic capacity can be set in different ways to produce the grammars of the various natural languages. But any setting of the parameters produces grammaticality, and is fully on par linguistically speaking. No language is better qua language, or more authentically languagey. Now, it may be that Yanomamo warriors, queer-stoning Islamists and gay Dutch vegans are all living out various dialects of morality, but if so, then it turns out that morality is a pretty useless category. The liberal morality of sympathy, reciprocity, and fairness, isn't just an equivalent way of deploying moral judgment and emotion. It's better than the alternatives. That's basically the problem I've had with moral psychology based on Chomsky, such as John Mikhail's and Sue Dwyer's [pdf]. Rorty sums it up nicely.

Now, I'm a fan of Jonathan Haidt's social intuitionist theory according to which specific moral emotion and moral judgment is a function of different settings on several general dimensions of moral emotion. This is also a kind of parameters approach, but, unlike Chomsky-based theories, it is grounded in emotion rather than a kind of innate knowledge (or “cognizance” to use Chomsky's dodge word.) But the same critique applies. Certain ways of calibrating the dimensions of moral emotions are evidently, and seemingly paradoxically, immoral. Obviously, if you're going to say that, you're assuming the authority of one calibration as a secure basis for passing judgment on the others. Isn't that arbitrary? Well, I think one thing to say is that it is possible to determine, in evolutionary terms, what moral capacities are for. As the environment of human interaction changes through history, certain ways of calibrating the moral sense fail to function in the appropriate way. So while we can say that a certain calibration is “a morality,” in the sense that it a way of deploying the moral capacity, it is not authoritatively moral, in the sense that it violates the principles of a calibration that does serve the proper function of morality given the present social/institutional setting.

Now, I don't actually think that's quite right. Because it's not clear why the proper biological function of the moral capacity ought to have normative force. But I think it's a place to start when trying to think through the bindingness of morality in a non-spooky natural world.

For a different view, John Mikhail defends Hauser's book (which I haven't read yet, by the way) on the Georgetown Law blog.

Zygmunt Bauman on D.C.

I was reading a chapter on consumer capitalism in a 1998 book on globalization by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman at the recommendation of my intern, Andrew, and came across this passage about D.C.:

Contemporary cities are sites of an 'apartheid a rebours': those who can afford it, abandon the filth and squalor of the regions that those who cannot afford the move are stuck to. In Washington, D.C., they have already done it — in Chicago, Cleveland and Baltimore they are close to have done it. In Washington no discrimination is practised in the housing market. And yet there is an invisible border stretching along 16th Street in the west and the Potomac river in the north-west, which those left behind are wise never to cross. Most of the adolescents left behind the invisible yet all-too-tangible border never saw dowtown Washington with all its splendours, ostentatious elegance and refined pleasures. In their life, that downtown does not exist. There is no talking over the border. The life experiences are so sharply different that it is not clear what the residents of the two sides could talk to each other about were they to meet and stop to converse. As Ludwig Wittgenstein remarked, 'If Lions could talk, we would not understand them.'

Amusingly ridiculous, with some truth in the mix.

Ridiculous: I think he must mean the Anacostia in the south-east, since there is not much of an invisible border between, say, Georgetown and Rosslyn. 1998 was clearly a different era (the year I moved to the greater Washington, D.C., metropolitan area), since I've lived rather east of 16th Street for four years. My old roomates had a 2000 guidebook that, apparently assuming the reader to be petrified of black people, advised not going east of 14th St NW, which we mocked from our house between 9th and 10th. So what's happening? Gentrifying imperialists re-occupying the “filth and squalor?” they previously abandoned? Why? Why do I now live at full mile east of 16th?

I don't know if Bauman is totally mystified by poor black people or what, but talking to one sure isn't like talking to a talking lion. I recommend these topics to Bauman, should he ever encounter a poor Washingtonian in person: Redskins; Wizards; the popular songs on 95.5 WPGC; how things are going with them, generally; things on TV. For starters. Too, too weird.

Of course, there are plenty of invisible borders in Washington, but they have become pretty gerrymandered and porous. I wouldn't say that the Anacostia is an “invisible” border, but it remains one heck of border, that's for sure.

Status Anxiety

I caught the last 2/3 of the BBC documentary of Allain Botton's book Status Anxiety on PBS, and enjoyed it. Botton, like a good philosopher, emphasized the electivity of status-seeking, which I liked. He was, however, even somewhat more optimistic than I think I am about the possibility of stoic detachment from the evaluations of others. I think a sensitivity to others' opinion can help us guard against self-delusion. The trick is to pick the right people whose opinion you care about. The paradox is that the better you are at picking the right people, the less you probably need them to keep you grounded. Other than a pointless segment with a documentarian featuring annoying super-close-ups, I rather enjoyed it. Especially the shirtless hippie guy on the hippie farm who said while he understood the “dictionary definition” of status, but simply couldn't comprehend it.

What I Blogged on 9/11

In the summer of 2001, I was experimenting with a sort of community journaling software my friend Carolyn Ray was developing just before the blog thing really took off. This is what I wrote:

In response to Tom… I too share his anger, and his retributive urge. But I believe now is a time to reign in these passions and to reaffirm the values that make America both beloved and despised.

I firmly oppose the impulse to an imperialist foreign policy. This will breed exactly the kind of resentment that leads to terrorism. Indeed, our meddling in others' affairs may be precisely what provoked (though not warranted—nothing warrants) today's horror. We must try to find those responsible, give them a fair trial, and mete out justice in the most dispassionate and humane way. We must maintain our dignity and liberality.

I've more to say, but my building—-the George Mason University Law School—is being shut down. All morning we have watched the smoke from the Pentagon out our windows, and the circling helicopters and occasional fighter plane. This is an awful and frightening day. I don't know how I'll be getting home. I don't know if I want to get on the Metro. I do know that I am angry. This is my home. My great fear now is that my fellow Americans will give into this anger and do something rash.

Seems like yesterday and forever ago. Fair trials! Sad that the idea almost seems quaint now.

Again: Why Worry About Inequality?

In his latest response to Paul Krugman on inequality, Greg Mankiw says:

Even if rising inequality is exogenous, the government could still respond to it by making the tax code more progressive. That is a coherent policy viewpoint, driven as much by political philosophy as economics, about which reasonable people can disagree. I am the first to admit that the study of economics by itself does not tell you how to balance efficiency vs equality. And it certainly does not tell you whether it is more noble to be an egalitarian or a libertarian.

Many economists—even super-smart ones like Mankiw—think that efficiency and equality are contraries rather than complements and that libertarianism isn't a form of egalitarianism. This philosophical muddleheadedness of  economists makes the policy debate frustratingly obtuse. But the fault really lies with philosophers, who usually think the same things. It's sort of neat, in a bad way, how oppositions like “efficiency vs equality,” partly the fruit of philosophers' embarrassing economic ignorance, get repeated by economists.   

Krugman is apparently obsessed with nominal inequality, the difference in the size of people's money incomes. There is no doubt that there is increasing nominal inequality. But it is almost completely mysterious why nominal inequality ought to concern anyone. I wish people like Mankiw would stop acting like it's worth caring about. It just isn't.

I think part of the problem is that nominal inequality is confused with material inequality—differences in material living conditions. But while nominal inequality is increasing, material inequality continues to decrease. As market competition pushes prices down,  goods at the bottom of the price range more and more closely approximate goods at the top of the price range. (Which is why efficiency and equality are complements.) Food is probably the most striking example of material equalization. If you compare the diets of the top and bottom quintiles 100 years ago with the diets of the top and bottom quintiles now, you'll see that we have become immensely more equal, not less. My favorite pair of jeans, which I bought at Wal-Mart for $16, is a close substitute for jeans that cost 5 times more.

The trend toward material equality in market societies helps explain several trends, such as the increasing value of good design. Substantive equality leads us to value aesthetic differentiation ever more highly. But even good design trickles down. Which is one reason why material equalization makes it ever harder to signal status and why the materially status-conscious (many of them ideological egalitarians!) are willing to pay an increasing premium to claim inherently scarce and strongly status-signaling positional goods, like spots at Ivy League schools, apartments with Central Park views, or what have you. The feverishness with which high school kids (and their parents) compete for scarce Ivy League slots is an indication of the drive to have something everyone can't have in an egalitarian world where even the modestly remunerated can have most everything.   

But why give a crap about material equality anyway? Why is it something we ought to aim at? What purpose does it serve? I care a great deal that people have enough in material terms to realize their basic capacities and to implement the projects that give their lives meaning. I certainly don't think we're there yet. For instance, by putting a wall between education and market feedback mechanisms, we have created an apartheid system that ensures that millions of the poorest among us don't fully develop some of their crucial basic capacities, trapping them and their children (who will go to the same terrible schools) at the bottom of the pile. The point is not that schools need to be more equal, but that schools for the least well-off need to be as good as my $16 Wal-Mart jeans.

If you think money translates into political power, and that inequalities in political power are objectionable, then you're right! Inequalities in political power are objectionable. People with political power can oppress people in a way that people with just money can't. Libertarianism (used to be called “liberalism”) is, by the way, the egalitarian political philosophy that says that inequalities in political power should be minimized. And libertarianism tells you how to get money out of politics: take political power off the auction block by restricting political power to narrow limits.

No doubt a great deal of material inequality can be socially destabilizing. Hey, there's a good reason to care! But we're getting more, not less, materially equal. Fixation on nominal inequality leads some on the left to make absurd dark comments to the effect that the plump middle class will soon storm the streets wielding  sharp barbecue implements unless the median wage keeps pace with productivity growth. Absurd. Some folks like Richard Wilkinson say material inequality as such makes us sick, or, like Robert Frank, that we're so hopelessly status-conscious that we can't help but be aggrieved by the success of others. Neither argument is very persuasive, for reasons Fly Bottle readers are probably already tired of hearing me rehearse.

Anyway, if anybody really cared about equality or sufficiency, they would be agitating to build a market in education. Union participation and the progressivity of the tax code are distractions (except insofar as unions are the chief antagonist in the fight to end educational apartheid.) Here is battle cry: Equality through efficiency! Equality through liberty!


I can discern no point of the NY Times article, “Wal-Mart Finds an Ally in Conservatives” than to not-so-subtly suggest that right wing think tanks are corporate shills whose scholars nefariously omit to disclose Walton Family Foundation funding to hide the fact of their intellectual corruption. Of course, the story doesn't say this right out, and almost, kind of, denies it. But there would seem to be no other reason to even write the story. The upshot seemed to be that there is something shady in not disclosing in op-eds and articles that your organization has received funding from an organization whose interests you are defending, even if the author has no idea who funds their organization. 

So maybe the Times will take its own advice, and the next time they write a front page story that approvingly quotes an Economic Policy Institute scholar on the lack of worker bargaining power, they'll see fit to mention that EPI's board is controlled by officials from Big Labor, and that they receive big chunks of cash annually from unions.

[ADDENDUM: Oh! And they do mention in EPI in the Wal-Mart article, noting $2.5 mil in union funding just last year. But they should have mentioned that when they were giving EPI a platform to frame the wage statistics. And, anyway, they then allow the fact that Unions are dropping money like crazy to finance attacks on Wal-Mart to be framed by an actual union shill:

In response, Chris Kofinis, communications director for, an arm of the United Food and Commercial Workers Union that gives money to liberal research groups, said: “While we openly support the mission of economic justice, Wal-Mart and the Waltons put on a smiley face, hide the truth, all while supporting right-wing causes who are paid to defend Wal-Mart’s exploitative practices.”

Oh! So the money ladled out by unions is in support of economic justice, as opposed to exploitative practices. So no worries!]

Or maybe they'll accept that money more often follows opinion than the reverse, and that the merits of an argument generally have nothing to do with the motivation behind making it. I'm currently writing something on the Chicago's idiotic big box ordinance. That I would think this kind of thing is idiotic is not irrelevant to the fact Cato decided to hire me. Does Cato get Walton money? I have no idea, though I hope so. From Target's foundation? I don't know. From the people behind Home Depot? No idea! Is the Times really saying that it is better for me to know than to not know? I'd think the fact that I probably own  a piece of Wal-Mart through the mutual funds in my 401K would be more relevant. But I don't know about that, either.