Tuesday, February 21, 2012

A single measure or many?

We're still talking about The Bourgeois Virtues: Ethics for an Age of Commerce.

One point she is careful to repeatedly stress is that the virtues are not reducible to a single measure of utility. She is trying to avoid her points being assimilated into standard mainstream economics, a little like the Borg absorbing foreign material.

That might be just as bad as being rejected out of hand.

Until the framework somewhat mysteriously fell out of favor among theorists in the late eighteenth century, most Westerners did not think in Platonic terms of the One Good-to be summarized, say, as maximum utility, or as the categorical imperative, or as the Idea of the Good. They thought in Aristotelian terms of many virtues, plural.

Adam Smith himself was more sophisticated. We needed to balance different virtues or inclinations, not simply blur them together.

After all, said Smith as early as 1759, we want people to have a balanced set of virtues, including even love, not merely prudence, and this for all purposes, sacred, profane, business, pleasure, the good, the useful, the wide world, and the home, too. After his death, however, his followers came to believe that a profane Prudence, called "Utility," rules. Jeremy Bentham and his followers, and especially his twentieth-century descendents Paul Samuelson, Kenneth Arrow, Milton Friedman, and Gary Becker, are to blame. These are good men, great scientists, beloved teachers and friends of mine. But their confused advocacy of Prudence Only has been a catastrophe for the science that Adam Smith inaugurated.

Of course, this point of view is anathema in much of the economics profession. It is potentially unrigorous. It is not easily quantifiable in a straightforward way. The equations are not tractable.

But it is something I profoundly agree with, precisely because I think the positivistic narrow conception of utility which has dominated welfare economics since the 1930s is wrong. Pareto-optimality is a thin and inadequate measure for public policy. Interpersonal comparisons of activity have to be made, even if methodologicaly objectionable to some.

In fact, she says, utilitarian rules do not make sense even in their own terms.
Disinterested solidarity is necessary for any human activity-even, to take what would seem to be the hardest case, for the playing of a game. It has been discovered mathematically that games such as those contemplated by John Nash, that beautiful mind, cannot be played to mutual profit with Prudence Only rules. For one thing, if the game is finite-even as long as ten moves-it unravels into selfishness. For another, if it is not finite, it has an infinite number of solutions. The second point is known as the Folk Theorem, because no one knows who first devised it-and perhaps because it is so destructive of game theory that no game theorist now will claim it.
She also argues, perhaps with knowing rhetorical venom, that the "max-U" approach is a guy thing. She says alternatives have often come from women.
Nancy Chodorow, Joan Tronto, Virginia Held, Annette Baier, and Rosalind Hursthouse, have since about 1958 turned a woman's eye on ethical philosophy. They have noted that love is not self-love. (Ethical theory had been for a long time, oddly, a guy thing. I suppose that's an entailment of "theory" in general having been for a long time a guy thing. Women from Sappho to Virginia Woolf did their ethical thinking in poems and stories, not in philosophy.)
And she says much of the new thinking on Aristotle is female as well.
This program of Aristotle in modern dress, I say, has been strikingly feminine. Its leaders have been women, though, as Kathryn Morgan observed, none of them is a "star" in the style of John Rawls or Robert Nozick.
I don't think this is actually true - Alisdair McIntyre is one star of neo-Aristotelian perspectives. And I'm not sure it's useful to take that kind of gendered approach.
But it is an intriguing point.

I think it if anything comes down (again) to a difference in mental styles, in Isaiah Berlin's terms, the difference between the fox and the hedgehog. Aristotle is the paradigmatic fox, Plato the arch-hedgehog. Perhaps no matter how intellectual debate goes, or how the world moves on, some people will never be convinced to change their minds because some minds are full of multiplicity, and some are full of precise consistency.

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