Relativism In Morality And Economics



Frequent Catallarchy commenter Joe Miller, a professor at UNCP, compares relativism in morality and economics.

Once again, I’d like to thank Jonathan for the opportunity to post at Catallarchy. Discussions of moral relativism have cropped up in various threads here a number of times during the past few months that I’ve been a regular reader here. Most recently, Barry P. sums the issue quite nicely arguing:

Of course, within societies we develop collective moral bottom lines (i.e, criminal codes), and that’s all fine and good. I suppose the problem arises when you have clashes of cultures that have developed different moral codes. Judging one versus the other without employing the intrinsic biases of either society (or the biases of the observer) becomes philosophically difficult.

I think that Barry is right to say that moral relativism poses a deep philosophical challenge. On the other hand, I think that marketists, if they are to remain internally consistent, must find a way to rise to the challenge. My point, in other words, is that to the extent that one thinks that economics applies across cultures, one also has good reasons for thinking that morality will do so, and conversely, if one thinks that morality is relative to particular worldviews, then it might well be that one ought also to hold such a view about the desirability of markets.

First, perhaps a quick primer on relativism is in order. In its most persuasive form, relativism holds that human beings are fundamentally shaped by their society, such that two people from different cultures may well view the world in radically different, perhaps even incommensurable ways. Moral disagreements between individuals in different cultures are thus really reflections of differences in worldviews. Because humans are entirely shaped by our culture, no one has any access to a position that is not located in some particular culture. For a relativist, moral disagreement really amounts to claiming that my culture approves of A while your culture approves of not-A. What Thomas Nagel calls “the view from nowhere” is, according to the relativist, impossible. All views are views from somewhere, and without any objective view, there is no real justification for preferring one position to another. Thus, moral judgments between cultures are impossible.

Obviously I can’t refute relativism in the space of a blog post. But I would like to point out some overlap between objective moral theory (‘objective’ meaning universally true, not the Randian sort) and marketist uses of economics, and suggest that, given some of the philosophical commitments of marketists, moral relativism is an odd fit. Now obviously there are differences between morality and economics (Randians notwithstanding), a point that Jonathan made to me via e-mail when I suggested this post. He argues that morality is a normative pursuit while economics is a science that provides direction for the pursuit of our normative ends. Pushing this line further (though I don’t know that Jonathan would want to push the line this way; don’t hold the rest of this paragraph against him), one might argue that principles of economics can be empirically determined much like principles of biology are empirically determined. Morality or moral theory is and seemingly must be a priori, but the social science of economics is an empirical matter.

I think that description, while correct, is not complete, for marketists hold not just that economics provides direction but that economics provides the best direction for attaining our normative ends. Economics might be purely descriptive, but marketists make normative claims about the usefulness or the desirability of markets. In other words, a marketist argues not just that there are some principles of economics, but that the world ought to be ‘organized’ according to those principles. (For the record, I scare quoted ‘organized’ to avoid begging any questions; I know that most of you are anarchists., so I intend the word to apply only in a very loose sense.)

Consider, though, that very few marketists hold that the principles of economics apply only to certain cultures. No one here, for example, has argued that Marxism is a good idea in certain societies or that maybe some cultures should stick with socialism (or at least, if anyone has argued in this way, I haven’t found it yet—I’m willing to stand corrected on this issue). Rather, most marketists hold that the basic principles of economics apply to all societies at all times.

Now it’s not my aim here to dispute that view; indeed, I think it’s likely true. But such a view has important implications, or rather, such a view implicitly accepts a certain set of assumptions about human nature (e.g., beliefs about rational behavior and about responses to incentives). If economics is to apply universally, it will have to be the case that all humans, regardless of culture, respond in similar ways to similar stimuli. So to the extent that one believes that the market ought to govern human interactions in all societies, one already implicitly adopts the position that all humans share some basic characteristics and that those characteristics are a sufficient basis for positing a normative claim that is meant to apply across cultures.

Of course, making normative claims that apply across cultures with those claims grounded in truths about human nature, well, that’s pretty much exactly what Enlightenment moral theories do (Kant and utilitarianism are the two most famous Enlightenment moral theories, though one could just as easily turn to Locke, Hume or Smith). It’s no surprise, in fact, that marketists often advance their claims in terms familiar to Kantians (Hayek), Lockeans (Nozick), or utilitarians (Mises, to a certain extent).

If one is a marketist, then, it would seem that one would also have good reason to think that it is possible to construct a moral theory that applies across cultures. The same Enlightenment ideals about universal human nature that drive modern moral theory are similarly present in the most persuasive arguments for marketism. To reject those ideals in the case of morality would seem to entail rejecting those same claims as a possible basis for universal application of free market principles. That is not to say that there might not be different reasons for rejecting a universal moral claim, only that the reason most commonly offered (i.e., the claim that humans are shaped entirely by their cultures) undermines the case for marketism as surely as it does the case for morality.

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Bush 43 speaks much more

Bush 43 speaks much more like the sort of liberal I admire than anyone on the left side of the spectrum. (Rhetoric and action don’t match up very well, I’m afraid. Okay, they don’t really match up at all. But a Bush who did what he claims in all those speeches, well, I’d find it hard to disagree with that sort of foreign policy.)

I agree with you here- the rhetoric certainly isn't the problem with Bush.

I do have some worries, though, about your dismissal of social influence. Maybe it really is the case that everyone wants democracy. I like to think that it is. But I’m not so sure that I could really dismiss some society that itself rejected democracy. (There’s some irony here in that our standard for real rejection of democracy is that people vote not to have it, but still.)

Looking across cultures, what's really shocking is how uniform most of our moral behavior is. There are exceptiong, but the general rule homogenaity. I agree that you can't dismiss a society which actually rejected democracy, but I highly doubt that one would, once freed from repression for a few years. If not, of course, they'd be welcome to vote another type of government in place and we'd have no business rejecting that as illigitimate. AT least at first- if they voted for a repressive polyarchy we might have some interesting moral questions about how that affects their children. Nevertheless, it's a bridge we shan't be crossing for a long time.

But a rejection of a laissez-faire market isn’t (or need not be) a rejection of all markets, and I do have trouble imagining a society that is better off (or freer or more autonomous) that doesn’t have some kind of a market.

Oh I agree with you here, but for me it's like talking about Nuclear weapons. Does deterrance work? Probably it does, and as a result some Nuclear weapons are probably desirable. But that issue isn't even on the table- getting caught up in question of theoretical deterrance is just a way of getting sidetracked given our nuclear capacity. I hope that analogy made sense. If not I'll explain further.

Nice discussing with you, by the way- you're a pretty sharp guy.

-Matt

Still not clear. Are you

Still not clear. Are you saying they would all individually do better in markets? You say most want the same as you. Is George Bush one who wants the same as you? Would he as an individual do better in a free market?

Relativism is not a good

Relativism is not a good argument for anything. A serious look at these arguments reveals how deeply they have to dig in order to find major differences. Do they exist? Sure, but are the similarities much greater? Absolutely. It's very unlikely that our ethics and values are primarily rooted in society (though clearly it has an effect), and as a result I don't think relativism has much sway. I think it gives the left a bad name, and is actually rather racist when you think about it.

People argued that Asian countries needed dictators because they "authoritarian societies" and so forth- justifying all kinds of nonsense this way is very easy to do.

Take spreading democracy throughout the world- of course we should do that (though we don't even try, of course). It's deeply racist to pretend that other cultures would prefer not to have a self-expressive voice.

As for markets though, I think the opposite is the case. Spreading US-style markets decreases autonomy (which many of you guys admit) and hampers the ability of a people to make decisions via their government.

-Matt

I'm pretty sure I gave the

I'm pretty sure I gave the answers in the very sentence you clipped:

Rather, I think that most people prefer the same ends that I do, and that we have many common goals, and that If we want to pursue them, then a market-based society is the best way to do so.

The answer is: best for all those people who share my goals.

... then a market-based

... then a market-based society is the best way to do so.

Best how for whom? For all? On average?

Joe, Let me start my stating

Joe,

Let me start my stating what I agree with:

- In my view, economics is a descriptive science. It describes how humans make choices given the world in which we live.
- Descriptive knowledge of nature is a Good Thing. In addition to economics, I think psychology, sociology, congnitive science, etc - to the extent that they are scientific pursuits unladled with ideological baggage - can only further help us know about ourselves.
- I think it's inaccurate to think of economics as normative as some libertarians do. That's putting the cart before the horse.

I think that description, while correct, is not complete, for marketists hold not just that economics provides direction but that economics provides the best direction for attaining our normative ends. Economics might be purely descriptive, but marketists make normative claims about the usefulness or the desirability of markets. In other words, a marketist argues not just that there are some principles of economics, but that the world ought to be ‘organized’ according to those principles.

I think this is where the crux of my disagreement with this post lies. You state that economics is purely descriptive, but then then conclude that "marketists" make normative claims. As a short reply, I'll say that I don't (think I) make normative claims that markets are what everyone ought to prefer because they are preferable in some cosmic, ultimate, universal sense. Rather, I think that most people prefer the same ends that I do, and that we have many common goals, and that If we want to pursue them, then a market-based society is the best way to do so.

But I don't say that those ends are ultimate objective ends for everyone. I know that some egalitarians would prefer a society in which everyone was equally poorer than a society with greater differences in wealth but where the poor are better off in absolute terms. I don't have any arguments to counter that view. That's one reason I'm also a pluralist. Draw a line in the sand that divides such irreconcilable differences in ends.
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BTW - the general goal of pursuing morality from knowledge of a constant human nature is very similar to Randy Barnett's forumulation of natural rights:

In my view, a natural-rights analysis should also take as its objective, not only the "purpose of survival which man have in associating with each other," but also the pursuit of happiness, peace, and prosperity. As I explain elsewhere38, to structure society so as to pursue these ends, human beings must somehow come to grips with the problems of knowledge, interest, and power. Doing so will require adherence to the rights and procedures that define the liberal conception of justice and the rule of law. According to this natural-law argument, given the pervasive social problems of knowledge, interest, and power confronting every human society, if human beings are to survive and pursue happiness, peace, and prosperity while living in society with others, then their laws must not violate certain background natural rights or the rule of law.

To put the Barnett's forumulation in context of my general disagreement with your post, I think that the descriptive sciences provide the GIVEN. But the IF must be filled in by individual preferences. The THEN follows once again from the descriptive sciences.

If I believed that the IF varied highly among my fellow human beings, I'd be in a tough place and my outlook on any sort of progress would be bleak. But when I look around, most people's IFs are very similar. Whew!

Reference: A speech by Barnett where he fleshes out the argument

It is not so much that moral

It is not so much that moral comparisons between "cultures" are impossible as that it generally serves little useful purpose from a social scientific standpoint. There is no good sociological, economic or social scientific reason for doing so. A statement such as "Culture A's values/practices are morally superior to Culture B's values/practices" is of little analytical use.

Given that normative statements are predicated on more or less arbitrary assumptions at some level, it is entirely possible to compare these assumptions across "cultures" using some meta-system that you have devised for this purpose. Of course, some other analyst can then go ahead and construct a meta-meta-system that problematizes your construct, and so on.

Vache, First, I'd dispute

Vache,

First, I'd dispute the claim that moral comparisons are irrelevant to sociology, economics or social science. In fact, a big chunk of my argument above is that economics, at least, implicitly makes a set of moral assumptions. These things aren't as independent as you seem to think. But even if it were true that morality didn't connect up to the social sciences generally, why would it follow that it's irrelevant? The laws of physics don't have all that much bearing on economics, so from a social scientific standpoint, physics is not very useful, either. That doesn't mean that it doesn't serve some _different_ useful purpose, no?

Matt, I'm sympathetic to

Matt,

I'm sympathetic to your position here; I'm no relativist, and it drives me nuts to see the left being overtaken by a post-modernist-driven relativism. Give me Kantian or Millian liberalism with it's hard absolutes any day. In fact, in certain ways, Bush 43 speaks much more like the sort of liberal I admire than anyone on the left side of the spectrum. (Rhetoric and action don't match up very well, I'm afraid. Okay, they don't really match up at all. But a Bush who did what he claims in all those speeches, well, I'd find it hard to disagree with that sort of foreign policy.)

I do have some worries, though, about your dismissal of social influence. Maybe it really is the case that everyone wants democracy. I like to think that it is. But I'm not so sure that I could really dismiss some society that itself rejected democracy. (There's some irony here in that our standard for real rejection of democracy is that people vote not to have it, but still.)

As for your comments on markets, if you're claiming that unfettered markets inhibit autonomy, then I'm right with you. But a rejection of a laissez-faire market isn't (or need not be) a rejection of all markets, and I do have trouble imagining a society that is better off (or freer or more autonomous) that doesn't have some kind of a market.

Jonathan: "Rather, I think

Jonathan: "Rather, I think that most people prefer the same ends that I do, and that we have many common goals, and that If we want to pursue them, then a market-based society is the best way to do so."

I wonder, though, if this doesn't still sneak a normative claim into something purporting to be a descriptive one. After all, you do still claim that a market-based society is the _best_ way to achieve a certain set of ends. But claims about best and worst are normative claims, no? So to make 'best' stick, you need some kind of account of what it is that you mean by something being best.

So, for instance, best could just mean 'efficiently'. But then I'd ask why efficiency is such a good thing. Or best could mean that markets mostly get people what they prefer, or that they get more people what they prefer than any other system. Now, though, you've smuggled consequentialist reasoning back into your descriptive statement, because you're implicitly arguing that markets produce the greatest happiness overall.

I understand the move that you're wanting to make here. You outline a hypothetical imperative (if you want X, then do Y) and claim that, because most people seem to want X, then Y is the way to go while still leaving it open that some people might not actually want X. The problem is that, in this particular case, the relationship between X and Y is controversial. Marketists hold that Y is free-markets. Marxists would be willing to allow that people hold X in common and then deny that Y is the way to achieve it. To the extent that you disagree, or rather, to the extent that you argue that markets are the _best_ way to get to X, then you're making a normative argument, and it's a normative argument that you are asserting is true for everyone who wants X.

So I don't think that you're really getting around the issue I outline. You are correct in saying that not everyone wants X, so in that sense, you're not asserting a universal claim. But you are still asserting as a universal claim that _anyone_ who wants X should be a marketists. That's still a normative claim, and it's still one that is inconsistent with also holding moral relativism.

Matt: "Nice discussing with

Matt: "Nice discussing with you, by the way- you’re a pretty sharp guy."

Thanks, and likewise. Unfortunately, I'm going to have to get back to your comments tomorrow as I'm already running late for an engagement this evening.

This is a very fascinating

This is a very fascinating concept, one which I intend to give more thought to. I'm very relativist when it comes to morality. I realized long ago that a society's moral code is developed economically, that a system is developed which allows that society to follow their particular goals (societies with bad moral codes don't ultimately last - Sparta?). How can there be an objective morality when everyone is so different, and what authority could create and enforce this morality? A god, perhaps, but I'm atheistic as well.

This quest post is on a related, but slightly different and more interesting, topic. If the fundamental theories of economics are making some moral judgements, what are they? I'd think that such a moral code would be such that it enables the proper functioning of free markets. It would support and encourage individualism, would heavily penalize any sort of coercion, etc. A comprehensive list of necessary conditions for a free market and the implied moral code behind them would be very fascinating to read. Does anyone know where one is?

It does have some implications for me philosophically though. I didn't believe in an objective moral code before, but I'm also extremely marketist. I suppose that the assumed moral code allowing free markets isn't objective - people willingly reject markets, so obviously it's still relative. The fact that markets ultimately prevail is pretty strong evidence for me though that there is a "right" way to do things, and deviation from it results in disaster. That view, however, just defines the right thing as the efficient thing - an option I considered as a possible objective moral code.

In the end, I don't think that a moral code that supports free markets is any less relative than any other, even if it is more efficient. I don't remember who said it, but it was something along the lines of that morality deals with the ideal, but economics deals with the reality. I still think this holds true. Maybe ideal economics can yield an ideal morality. It is something to consider, certainly. At the same time, economics itself will still always deal with reality. Morality is a curiosity, but I'm as materialist as they come, and I'd rather deal with truth than ideals. Economics does this, and that's what counts.

Joe, Just to clarify one

Joe,

Just to clarify one point, I've never denied using consequentialist reasoning in my arguments. In fact, most of the arguments I make on the blog are about consequences. The given-if-then hypothetical imperative I describe is a argument about consequences. Randy Barnett calls it "natural rights consequentialism".

Second, I don't consider myself a "moral relativist". I have strong moral intuitions. I take umbrage when I see people's autonomy being violated. I am deeply skeptical of power. But I see no way to "prove" that my intuitions are correct, or merely the products of culture and/or evolution. I'm not sure if words like "correct" even apply scientifically to our moral sense. I think a better term for my outlook is "moral skepticism".

The Marxist and I might disagree on Y, but descriptive sciences like economics, psychology, and sociology can help figure out which of us is correct.

To the extent that you disagree, or rather, to the extent that you argue that markets are the best way to get to X, then you’re making a normative argument, and it’s a normative argument that you are asserting is true for everyone who wants X.

I don't understand how this is normative. Is it because there is disagreement of what Y is? Is it because I'm making a prescription of how to achieve X? To me it seems like I am making a falsiable statement, thus making it positive, not normative.

I see no way to “prove”

I see no way to “prove” that my intuitions are correct, or merely the products of culture and/or evolution. I’m not sure if words like “correct” even apply scientifically to our moral sense.

there is a deep sense in which this is unknowable. In philosophy (I'm not sure how familiar you are) there's a epistemelogical sense in which the "rightness" of ethics is unknowable. In this same sense though of course, a bus that's heading toward you is "unknowable" as well. It does make sense to assume it exists though thoug, as far as I can tell, and move the hell out of the way.

It's in this same spirit that we should approach ethics, we clearly have "natural" ethical intuitions which are largely shared with everyone else in the world. Our discussion of right must (perhpas unfortunately) eschew the 1st paragraph's question and concentrate on the only reasonable starting point- our intuitions. Just as any serious discussion about the world must ignore the "true nature" of Kantian noumena (meaning what that bus actually is on a level beyond our experience)and assume that buses actually exist.

-Matt