Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Empathy, Moral Judgment, and Utilitarianism

There is more evidence that empathy plays a key role in making non-utilitarian moral judgments. This would seem to have two implications. One is that the more empathy one has, the lower one's utilitarian judgment, which may explain some aspects of libertarian vs. non-libertarian moral judgments, with libertarians tending to be more economically-literate utilitarians. (On the other side is Peter Singer's leftist utilitarianism -- with all the (in)famous conclusions that stem from it, which all become abundantly clear once you see how low in empathy he must be to be a utilitarian.) But it also explains why those who read a great deal of literature tend toward less utilitarian conclusions, even faced with economic facts.

I have argued that we should read more literature to become more empathetic to become more moral. It may seem odd, then, for a libertarian like myself to argue we need to read more literature. The above would seem to argue against reading literature and for reading economics books. However, as useful as utilitarianism is in economics, it's pretty much useless for face-to-face morality. How I should treat other people is not a utilitarian calculation. It's a moral judgment. And the more literature we read, the more kinds of people we learn to empathize with, and the better our moral judgments. We need both to live in the complex civil society in which we live.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Why Is There No Milton Friedman Today?

Econ Journal Watch asks Why Is There No Milton Friedman Today? That is, why are there no superstars of economics? One could perhaps ask the same things of a number of a number of fields. The sciences, including the social sciences, go through periods of "normal science" and periods of "revolutionary science." Milton Friedman, F.A. Hayek, Paul Samuelson, J.M. Keynes, Mises, et al were of the generation of economics' revolutionary period. We have perhaps settled into the "normal science" era of economics.

We see this same thing in philosophy, with times of revolutionary creativity followed by scholasticism. We are clearly in the latter period in philosophy as well. And the same thing takes place in the arts. We went from the creativity of high modernism to the relative stagnation of postmodernism.

In each case, we see a transition from relative stability, as people work on the well-established problems, working out the details on the margins. But when people reach a certain point, where the models are no longer working to describe the world well, we get revolutionary periods, during which time we get the giants of the field. Milton Friedman was one such person, born and working at the right time.

Basically, this is a network effect. We expect this kind of punctuated equilibrium when there is a network.

Friday, May 17, 2013

References to My Work in Other Works

My article on "Egypt's Revolution and Higher Education" has been cited in a scholarly article, Daniel LaGraffe's "The Youth Bulge in Egypt: An Intersection of Demographics, Security, and the Arab Spring" in the Journal of Strategic Security. It has also been cited in Life as Politics: How Ordinary People Change the Middle East by Asef Bayat.

My more recent Pope Center piece, "Scientists and Engineers Need Literature" has been reposted at FreeThinkU.

"From Trivium to Trivality" was cited and commented upon at Community College Spotlight and ArmyEdSpace.

I'm still waiting to see my actual academic papers cited in academic papers, but I can't complain about my Pope Center pieces being so cited.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Spontaneous Orders are Naturally Occurring Processes

Humans discover far more than they invent. When we participate in spontaneous social orders, we participate in the discovery of knowledge, morals, and wisdom. But it very much goes against our arrogance as a species to admit that we are less inventors than discoverers. Humans did not invent property rights, markets, language, or morals. Rather, we have instincts for those things, which socially evolve in spontaneous orders.

As entrepreneurs, humans discover new ways of doing things that are more efficient and less expensive.

As scientists, humans discover the laws of science.

As participants in common law, we discover new laws (as legislators, humans invent legislation -- much of which is in direct violation of discovered common law). It is notable that discovered law abides by rule of law and equality under the law.

As participants in the moral order, we discover new morals. Indeed, morals are rooted in our sentiments (they are instinctual); at the same time, it is evidence our morals evolve over time. One can thus argue that morality is a discovery process, that we discover new morals, and, thus, expand our moral worlds.

We could not learn morals if we did not have a moral instinct. We could not teach morals if those we taught did not have a moral instinct. (Sociopaths are evidence of this.) If we did not have moral instincts (built in empathy and sympathy and a sense of justice), we could not have invented them. How would we know to? How would we know that the good is good to have?

The same is true of common law -- built as it is on our instinctual sense of justice and fairness. Legislation is merely the rigidification of law. It is legislators coming along and taking credit for what has already been discovered through common law (that is, for just legislation -- there is plenty of cronyist legislation which violates common law, equality under the law, and rule of law).

Free market economies are naturally occurring systems emergent from natural human interactions. The same is true of science, most of our institutions (property rights, family, etc.), morals, philosophy, religion, the arts and literature, technological innovation (the specific technologies are invented, but we have an instinct to invent, and we have a social order that rewards invention -- and not just economically), money, etc. The opposition to spontaneous social orders like market economies comes form the same psychological source as opposition to biological evolution and cosmological evolution. Humans evolved to associate order with an orderer. Theological creationists and intelligent designers think this is true of cosmological and biological evolution; social creationists and intelligent designers (who are oddly often a-theological) think this is true of social evolution.

Order requires a hands-on orderer, according to standard human psychology. This is why the fight to get widespread acceptance for evolutionary processes -- whether physical, biological, psychological, or social -- is ongoing.

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Weak Bonds Make Spontaneous Orders Possible

In order for a spontaneous order to emerge, there has to be a predominance of weak social links over strong social links (of family, tribe, etc.). Randall Collins in The Sociology of Philosophies notes that studies show
that creative persons have a strong desire to make their own judgments; this in turn is typically related to childhood opportunities for independence and novel experience. Often too there is a period of physical or social isolation in which these young persons become introduced to a vicarious community of the mind. Their IR [Interaction Ritual] chains become detached from the local circulation of mundane culture and from its pressures for local conformity. The lowering of ritual density is a prerequisite for innovation; but it must also be linked to the intermittent support of the rituals of intellectual communities to give it content and energy. (34)
 That is, the creation of weak links allow one to participate in a particular spontaneous order. Much of what Collins says above could be equally applied to participation in a number of other spontaneous orders, from philosophy to technology, from markets to art. Naturally, different emotional energies, cultural capital, and interaction rituals are at play in other orders -- but that's precisely why we need to understand each kind in its own terms.

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

Society Does Not Decide

One often hears the phrase "society decides," but among metaphors, this has to be one of the worst -- and most damaging. The reason for this is that "society" is not capable of making a decision. To be able to make a decision, you have to be able to choose among options, and society cannot choose any more than it can decide. To be able to choose and decide, one has to be able to have goals. That means the chooser/decider has to be a teleological entity. This would include any living being, with those having complex neural structures being able to make more complex choices and decisions. Humans, having the most complex neutral networks, are able to make the most complex choices and decisions.

"Society," however, is not a teleological entity. Social processes are ateleological. They do not have goals, make decisions, or choose anything. In this sense it is utter nonsense to say that "society decides" anything.

The reason this is important is that ideas like "market failure" are premised on the idea that the market is failing to provide something that "society decides" is important, but which no individual would be willing to pay for. Thus, the market is not acting optimally (according to equilibrium theory). The argument is that since such sub-optimal products exist which people need, but which nobody would pay for, government needs to step in and provide what "society decides" it, as a whole, needs. This gets us closer to understanding what is really meant when someone says "society decides" something.

What is really meant by "society decides" is "a democratic majority agrees" about a certain outcome. But democratic decision-making is hardly appropriate for a variety of social processes. If by "society," one means a democratic majority, then any number of market products produced for a minority market would be sub-optimal. After all, the raw materials that go into a product produced for a minority market could have gone into another being produced for a majority market. And competition for raw materials drives up prices, meaning products produced for minority markets drive up the price of products for majority markets.

But what is suboptimal at one time may be optimal at another, later, time -- when prices drop. Cell phones are a good example. "Society" did not want cell phones in the 1980s, when they first came out and were extremely expensive, but "society" certainly does now that they are cheap (and are literally tiny pocket computers). But "society" would not have had the cell phones we have now if "optimality" was at all at play at the level of society. The last thing we need to be worried about is optimal outcomes for society -- especially given the fact that real economies are not at equilibrium, but are in far-from-equilibrium states.

Markets do not fail, because 1) market failure is premised on the fact that an unrealistic equilibrium model does not match the far-from-equilibrium economic reality, and 2) society cannot decide anything. Even if we accept "society" meaning "majority," the market is not a democratic process in that way -- it is far, far better insofar as minorities are able to get what they want every bit as much as can the majorities in society. When "society decides," it is minorities of every imaginable kind who suffer. This is true even though society does not and cannot ever decide anything; it is true so long as people continue to believe that society does and can decide, because the same kinds of bad decisions are being made based on the belief that it can. Who is it making those decisions? Since it cannot be society, it has to be some self-appointed spokesman, who inevitably finds that society always decides whatever HE would decide.

Monday, May 06, 2013

Morals as Spontaneous Order

Morality is a spontaneous order. As such, we should expect it to have a variety of features found in self-organizing processes. One of these would be paradoxical tensions giving rise to complex rules:
Popular writers prefer to simplify things by describing the lives of chimpanzees either in Hobbesian terms, as nasty and brutish, or by stressing their friendly side, but in fact it's never one or the other. It's always both. If people ask how chimpanzees can possibly be called empathic, knowing that they sometimes kill one another, my return question is always whether by the same token we shouldn't abandon the whole notion of human empathy as well.

This duality is crucial. Morality would be superfluous if we were universally nice. What would there be to worry about if all that humans ever did was show sympathy for one another, and never steal, never stab someone in the back, never covet another's wife? This is clearly not how we are, and it explains the need for moral rules. On the other hand, we could design a zillion rules to promote respect and care for others, but they'd come to naught if we didn't already lean in that direction. They would be like seeds dropped onto a glass plate: without a chance of taking root. What permits us to tell right from wrong is our ability to be both good and bad. (Frans de Waal, The Bonobo and the Atheist, 27)
In order for our complex moral rules to have evolved, we had to have already been both good and bad in our potential interactions.

We would also expect our morals to have emerged from the bottom-up:
The view of morality as a set of immutable principles, or laws, that are ours to discover ultimately comes from religion. It doesn't really matter whether it is God, human, reason, or science that formulates these laws. All of these approaches share a top-down orientation, their chief premise being that humans don't know how to behave and that someone must tell them. But what if morality is created in day-to-day social interaction, not at some abstract mental level? (de Waal, 23)
 Hume argues that our morals emerge from our sentiments. I and de Waal agree. From this instinctual foundation, our moral systems are further developed in our daily social interactions with others. It is only after the fact, after these interactions have given rise to our moral orders and the institutions of those orders, that moral philosophers come along and theorize morality into higher levels of abstraction. This then works as eminent criticism of the moral order -- it thus has an effect, but it's not what truly drives the emergence of our complex moral rules.

Finally (for this post, at least), one would expect there to be a power law distribution of moral rules. Some moral rules are more important than others. We could probably place first degree murder at the very top as being the one worst thing one could do to another person. At the bottom, so to speak, would be all the various rules of etiquette -- there are many, and the worst reaction you will get from an incursion against them is a disapproving look from whoever noticed. I'm not going to proceed to give a power law ranking of all the other moral rules, as they are going to vary to a certain degree from place to place and from time to time. But we can probably get a general idea of the general rankings by considering all of the moral incursions that could have gotten you the death penalty vs. the fact that in places like the U.S., the only thing that can still get you the death penalty is first degree murder (and often it has to be accompanied by other crimes).

All of these elements suggest morality is a spontaneous order. Clearly more work needs to be done on this, but this seems a good place to start.

Wednesday, May 01, 2013

Status Prestige

The Edge has a new piece by Joseph Henrich on How Culture Drove Human Evolution. Given my interest in human social structures leading to social spontaneous orders, his comments on status are of particular interest:
Early work on human status just took humans to have a kind of status that stems from non-human status. Chimps, other primates, have dominant status. The assumption for a long time was that status in humans was just a kind of human version of this dominant status, but if you apply this gene-culture co-evolutionary thinking, the idea that culture is one of the major selection pressures in human evolution, you come up with this idea that there might be a second kind of status. We call this status prestige.
This is the kind of status you get from being particularly knowledgeable or skilled in an area, and the reason it's a kind of status is because once animals, humans in this case, can learn from each other, they can possess resources. You have information resources that can be tapped, and then you want to isolate the members of your group who are most likely to have a lot of this resources, meaning a lot of the knowledge or information that could be useful to you in the future. This causes you to focus on those individuals, differentially attend to them, preferentially listen to them and give them deference in exchange for knowledge that you get back, for copying opportunities in the future.
From this we've argued that humans have two separate kinds of status, dominance and prestige, and these have quite different ethologies. Dominance [ethology] is about physical posture, of size (large expanded chest the way you'd see in apes). Subordinates in dominance hierarchies are afraid. They back away. They look away, whereas prestige hierarchies are quite the opposite. You're attracted to prestigious individuals. You want to be near them. You want to look at them, watch them, listen to them, and interact with them. We've done a bunch of experimental work here at UBC and shown that that pattern is consistent, and it leads to more imitation. There may be even specific hormonal profiles with the two kinds of status.
 The evolution of status prestige explains the emergence and roles of the shaman -- which itself evolved into priests, poets, singers, actors, etc. -- alongside the dominant status alphas. If we include good hunters, innovators of various sorts, entrepreneurs, etc., we can see an ever-expanding number of those who are able to gain status prestige. Further, as prestige status has come to dominate in humans, the dominance status individuals have had to learn to act more and more like status prestige individuals. This is where the cult of personality comes from in politics. And it is where the tension between a political (or business) leader both needing the people under him to both love and fear him comes from. Chimpanzee alphas who only have dominant status only need to ensure fear.

The dominance of prestige over dominance status is what makes complex spontaneous social orders possible. While there can be only one dominant alpha, one can gain prestige in one narrow area of life, and thus not have to compete with others for that prestige. Perhaps prestige status drove specialization; specialization, in turn, drove the emergence of ever more complex social structures. The emergence of this kind of prestige thus allowed humans to interact in increasingly complex ways with more and more people, until our spontaneous social orders emerged.

Read the entire piece. He provides support for spontaneous orders in general, free markets in particular, and why rule of law is important (and emerges). Of particular note is this observation about markets:
Markets require a great deal of trust and a great deal of cooperation to work. Sometimes you get the impression from economics that markets are for self-interested individuals. They're actually the opposite. Self-interested individuals don't specialize, and they don't take it [to market], because there's all this trust and fairness that are required to make markets run with impersonal others.
This is the argument supporters of free markets need to make.