27 November 2009

Capitalism and Morality

Nobel Laureate Edmund Phelps, the McVickar Professor of Political Economy at Columbia University, has written a fascinating short essay on the connection between justice and capitalism. He shifts the usual focus of such discussions from just or unjust distribution signatures to the aspect of human nature often overlooked: the tireless search for innovation.

I highly recommend it.

[Hat tip: Kruse Kronicle.]

23 November 2009

Responding to a Review

I discovered that one Kevin Currie-Knight posted a review of my book Actual Ethics on its amazon.com page. I thank Mr. Currie-Knight for his review. He gave it four out of five stars, which I appreciate; and he says some nice things about the book, which I also appreciate. But his reasons for not giving it a higher review were puzzling to me and I thought warranted some brief responses.

(I am not sure what the protocols for responding to reviews are, so I decided to post them here, rather than somewhere on the Amazon site.)

Currie-Knight misspells my name throughout his review. I wouldn't hold that against him, but it does suggest perhaps that he does not pay attention to details. Perhaps that explains some of Currie-Knight's curious criticisms.

Here is his first objection, pasted exactly as it appears on the amazon.com page (thus without the numerous sic's from me):
I am a bit skeptical of Otterson's central idea that the only just ethic is one which treats all people as ends rather than means. Not that we should not do this, but the very capitalism Otterson defends does not always do this. Employers see employers as means, employees see employers as means, producers see consumers as means (to more revenue) and consumers see producers as means (of getting products and services). The entire process of bargaining (getting the most from the other for as little expenditure as possible) involves seeing the other as a means to get what you want for as little cost as necessary. I could be wrong, but that Otterson did not even entertain this objection floored me.

This would indeed be a serious omission, not least because it seems obviously false that people are allowed morally to treat others only as ends and never also as means. Even Kant himself is careful to make the proper distinction--not just between treating others as ends or as means simpliciter, but also between treating others as ends or also as means.

Thankfully, I did not omit addressing the objection Currie-Knight accuses me of omitting. On p. 6, I write:
Of course persons may be treated as means--when one pays someone else to mow one's lawn, for example--but persons may never be treated merely as means. Respecting the lawnmower's personhood would entail, for example, making him an offer and allowing him either to accept or not as he judges fit; allowing him to choose is a recognition that he has his own 'ends' or goals or purposes--he is a person, in other words, not a thing. (italics in the original)
Apparently Currie-Knight missed that discussion. On to his second objection:
Neither did Otterson consider the idea that "Respecting the individual" (a) may entail more than the negative liberty of leaving her free to make decisions for herself, but (b) may not be a value that overrides all other consdierations in every case. The obvious argument in favor of public education is that we may accept small incursions into taxpayers' liberty over their money in order to enhance each individual's ability to exercise judgment by educating them at public expense. Otterson's argument, at all times, seems to reduce to pointing out that doing this violates individual sovereignty and disrespects the individual (to which the utilitarian replies that they've already admitted that it does, but that the benefits outweigh the costs. (In fact, a plausible argument could be made that as education enhances one's ability to live independently, the state is respecting individuality by helping children cultivate it.) Otterson doesn't show oterwise and, as such, talks past his opponents.)

This is really two objections. The first, that I did not consider the idea that respect for an individual might entail a requirement to do more than simply respect the person's freedom, seems especially puzzling, since the topic comes up repeatedly. Much of the book's chapters 3 and 4 specifically address our obligations to the needy, for example. Having already argued on behalf of "classical liberal" limits on state power, I argue in these chapters that those limits similarly entail limits on what the state should do to address the needy.

But I specifically--and, I thought, emphatically--argue that state obligations do not exhaust our personal moral obligations. I argue that we have personal obligations to help the needy, and that those personal obligations do and rightfully should go well beyond the state's minimal obligations.

Here, for example, is what I claim on pp. 113-114:
Now, opposing the use of political means for this kind of relief does not mean, however, opposing all kinds of relief for those who need it. On the contrary--and this cannot be emphasized enough--it means only that such cases as require the help of others are all matters of social means and social power. So the objection [I raised] is only to the use of political means, not to the provision of help generally. My argument is that when help is required, social means, and social means only, should be employed. People who need help, families that need shelter, infants who need formula, children who need operations, students who need scholarships, adults who need a second chance, laid-off workers who need new job training--in these cases and any others like them, if help is required, then take action! Do not wait for someone else to do it. Do not shift your personal moral responsibilities onto distant agencies or unknown third parties and believe that you have thereby fulfilled your duty. If in any particular situation moral responsibility attaches to the doing of something, then that responsibility can be assumed only by individuals--which means by you and me. So let us roll up our sleeves and get to work. (italics in the original)

I go on to argue that my conception of moral responsibility towards others is in fact far more demanding than my opponents', precisely because it places the responsibility on each of us personally. Now that is a controversial position to take, and one might dispute it on several grounds; several of those objections I raise and address in the text. But I did indeed discuss it, quite extensively.

Perhaps Currie-Knight missed that section of the book as well.

His third objection, noted above, is that I fail to consider utilitarian benefits to certain kinds of intrusions on personhood, in particular with respect to publicly subsidized and regulated education. Perhaps respecting the 'personhood' I defend is a reasonable default position, but, Currie-Knight suggests, that does not mean that there might not be specific occasions on which slight curtailment of absolute respect for 'personhood' is not overbalanced by the good that results. And education is a prime example.

This is another excellent objection to raise, one that any thoughtful defender of my view should take seriously; failure to address it would be a grave omission. Thankfully, however, I do address it, and I do so at quite some length.

Here is the opening paragraph, for example, from chapter 4, "The Demands of Poverty":
I argued in chapters 2 and 3 that only the limited, "classical liberal" state is consistent with respecting people's personhood. In that way I claimed to have made a "principled" case: because respecting personhood is the bedrock moral principle, disrespecting it is wrong regardless of other considerations. At the end of chapter 3, however, I suggested that the argument left one central question as yet unaddressed: What about the poor? I argued that respect for personhood meant allowing only social, not political, power to be employed to help others. But perhaps restricting the state so that it secures and enforces [this negative conception of] 'justice' will benefit those who already have (substantial?) private property. Again, where does it leave the poor? What exactly is our obligation to give to those who have less than we? If the poor suffer unduly under the classical liberal state, perhaps "general welfare" out to supersede or trump the "principled" case made earlier. (p. 129)
This seems to approximate exactly the objection Currie-Knight suggests. But note that that is the first paragraph of this chapter. I go on to devote the rest of the chapter, as well as the subsequent chapter, to addressing precisely this issue. That is quite a lot of the book for Currie-Knight to have missed.

Regarding education, I note that I devote about two-thirds of chapter 6, pp. 208-238, to discussing a range of arguments in favor of and against government involvement in education aside from the "principled" one I had defended earlier. I specifically take up the utilitarian argument by looking in some detail into the empirical results of various educational policies (pp. 229-37).

Again, one might contend that my response to the utilitarian argument is inadequate; perhaps one would argue that I overlook some of the benefits of state-regulated schooling, that I unfairly disparage the results, or perhaps that I overstate the alleged advantages of market provision of education. But to claim that I did not consider the issue is simply false.

As I state in the Preface to Actual Ethics, the book is meant to be a primer--not the final word on any of its topics, but the first (or the first few). Currie-Knight recognizes this and credits me for it; I thank him for that. The book was also written to be provocative, lively, and (I hoped) more entertaining than your typical work of political philosophy. I hoped that it would, in the spirit of John Stuart Mill, constitute a fillip to discussion and perhaps reexamination in the marketplace of ideas.

As the above suggests, I think Currie-Knight's objections miss their mark, and by a lot. But his review is its own fillip in the marketplace of ideas, and it has provoked me, at least, to revisit some of the arguments in my book. For that, I thank him, however unhappy I am with the substance of the objections he raised.

Religion and Capitalism

In a recent Boston Globe article, Michael Fitzgerald reports on a study done by two Harvard researchers into some of the factors affecting economic success. One strongly influential factor the researchers found was religion--specifically, religious belief that includes a robust belief in hell.

Apparently, simple belief in God has little positive or negative correlation with economic growth; belief in heaven correlates positively, and belief in hell correlates with even bigger economic growth. The effect is apparently strongest among developing countries.

Researchers are not quite sure why this is. One speculation is that fear of punishment is a more primal motivation in human beings, and thus a fear of eternal damnation has a strong power to motivate people. So if one believes that one will be punished in the hereafter if one breaks the rules of morality, one tends to break them less often. The connection to economic growth might then consist in the fact that people who break such rules less often tend to cooperate more, work harder, cheat less, and so on--all factors in encouraging economic growth.

I find this plausible, though of course the issue is quite complicated: there are many factors influencing economic growth. Even if a link between religion and capitalism is conceded, however, it would still leave wide open the question of what to do about it. How large-scale shifts in belief or in culture take place is still largely unknown. How one might try to affect such shifts is thus even less well understood.

As an aside, I note that in my Actual Ethics, I made a related claim:
Good judgment develops [...] not only by enjoying the freedom to exercise it, but also by being required to take responsibility for its exercise. [...] Another way of making the same point: if you were going to create your own new religion, one requiring people to sacrifice and change their otherwise everyday behavior, it would help to have a hell. Promises of good things to come if one behaves the way your religion prescribes will take you some distance, more with some people and less with others; but your efforts will be considerably aided if you also have punishment for bad behavior. (pp. 11-12)
Not quite the same claim, and I was talking about the development of human judgment, not economic growth. But both seem to agree that (1) human beings respond to incentives and (2) negative incentives for unwanted behavior are at least as important, if not more, than positive incentives for wanted behavior.

UPDATE 11/27/09: This post generated a bit of discussion at Kruse Kronicle. I find myself siding with Michael Kruse in the exchange. I would add to that discussion only the recommendation of a book I found quite interesting on the subject: The Bottomless Well by Peter Huber and Mark P. Mills.

19 November 2009

He Said It: Adam Smith

"A half-starved Highland woman frequently bears more than twenty children, while a pampered fine lady is often incapable of bearing any, and is generally exhausted by two or three. Barrenness, so frequent among women of fashion, is very rare among those of inferior station. Luxury in the fair sex, while it enflames perhaps the passion for enjoyment, seems always to weaken, and frequently to destroy altogether, the powers of generation." --Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776)

10 November 2009

A New Movie: "2081"

A student alerted me to the new movie entitled 2081, which is based on Kurt Vonnegut's chilling short story, "Harrison Bergeron." Here is a trailer for the movie. If you have not read the short story, you should. It cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. The movie looks--pardon the pun--equally chilling.

The story explores what happens if we take seriously the imperative that people should be equal. Not, it should be noted, what happens if everyone has equal opportunity, since that, after all, will lead inevitably to unequal outcomes; nor what happens if everyone is equal before the law, since that too will allow unequal outcomes. It explores, rather, what the world might look like if the state took it as one of its duties to ensure that no one had any more of anything than anyone else.

Is it unfair that some are smarter, more beautiful, more talented than others? Is it especially unfair that some indeed are extraordinary, far beyond the range of most humans? If so, and if the state's job is to minimize unfairness, then perhaps it should undertake to minimize these differences as well. If you spend a few seconds thinking about that you will be able to imagine the directions Vonnegut's story (and I presume the movies) go.

There was another movie adaptation of Vonnegut's story in 1995, this one under the same title (see here). I haven't seen it, but I will put it on my list. (I am a bit worried, however, about Sean Astin in the title role: Rudy might be plucky, but does he have the power and beauty that Harrison Bergeron does?)

09 November 2009

Remembering a Great Day for Humanity

Today is the twentieth anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. That may be the single most important political event in my lifetime. The toll in human life that Russian communism took is hard to imagine and hard to overstate, and its fall--initiated by the destruction the wall, which was its great symbol of its great features of fear, repression, and brutality--was a cause for joy around the world. It gave the world hope, real hope, for the future of humanity.

I will never forget where I was on that day when I heard the news; neither will I forget the images of people climbing the wall, dancing on it, singing out in protest, even while the East German border guards futilely soaked them with fire hoses. The guards knocked some of the revellers down, but it was too late: the wall was coming down now because it could not withstand the determined onslaught of people striving for freedom. It was a great day for humanity. I hope you too will celebrate it.

There are numerous stories, tributes, and memorials available on the internet. (Incredibly, my local newspaper, The Record, has not so much as a mention of the event in its front-page news section or on its editorial page. Shame on you, Record editors.) Professor Bradley Birzer wrote this provocative essay in commemoration of the event, which I highly recommend.

04 November 2009

The Nature of the State


"The state is a machine for maintaining the rule of one class over another." --Vladimir I. Lenin in a lecture entitled "The State," delivered at Sverdlov University, 11 July 1919.

"It would thus appear that the State, instead of originating according to any of the conjectures made by English and American writers on the subject, originated as a class-weapon of conquest and confiscation, and that its primary function was, and still is, to maintain the stratification of society into the two classes noted [namely, "a relatively small, owning and exploiting class which lives by appropriating without compensation the labour-products of a relatively large, propertyless and dependent class"]." --Albert Jay Nock, "The State," The Freeman, 13 June 1923.