Vice and The Motive of Wealth

This argument from Matt Yglesias seems very poor, especially since Matt is a pretty basic utilitarian (unless he has changed his mind since we last talked about ethical theory) who therefore has no business handwringing about motives. Rehearsing an argument he’d been having on an email list, Matt writes:

I was saying that whatever one thought should be done with large financial institutions as a policy matter, surely we could agree that the executives at these institutions are primarily bad people.

It turns out we couldn’t agree on that. But my argument is pretty simple. These are people primarily motivated in life by greed. Not just by a desire to make some scratch, mind you. These aren’t immigrants who walked through the desert from Mexico in order to earn more money by washing dishes in a San Diego hotel. They’re not 24 year-olds looking for a hefty salary in order to pay off student loans. They’re multi-millionaires who want to earn millions more. It’s possible, of course, that Vikram Pandit really does find being a bank executive to be intrinsically interesting. But a good person, who’s primary passion was the life of a bank executive, would be donating the bulk of his massive compensation package to charity. But that’s not what Pandit’s doing. Rather he, like virtually all executives at major firms, is living a life that’s primarily oriented around an ethic of greed.

Now there’s a decent argument out there, familiar from Adam Smith and the whole tradition of economics, that a world full of greedy people isn’t necessarily quite the disaster that pre-modern ethical thinkers would have thought. This is all well and good. True even. But it’s a sign, I think, of a kind of sickness running through American society that we’ve lost the willingness to just say clearly that ceteris paribus greedy behavior is not virtuous behavior. In the spirit of decency, of course, we recognize that none of us are without sin.

I assume the motivations of the executives of financial firms are many and varied. Some executives are surely complete bastards and some of them are surely upstanding women and men of virtue. Matt’s willingness to commit himself the the idea that these are bad people simply because of their occupation seems unhinged. I understand finance is unpopular now, but finance is only one of many ways to make money. If people motivated primarily by greed are bad people, and Matt cannot imagine another primary motive for financial executives, can he imagine other motives for any executive? How about small entrepreneurs animated by the prospect of hitting it big? Are movie stars, who do not donate the bulk of their massive compensation to charity, off the hook because they are also motivated by fame and self-love? 

Anyway, if Matt thinks the Adam Smith argument — that people moved by impulses other than benevolence or charity may nevertheless serve the general good — is “true even,” then what’s the problem? Especially given Matt’s utilitarian sympathies? Whether a person is “bad,” in the utilitarian framework, has little to do with motivation, and everything to do with results. As Tyler Cowen kept urging on Peter Singer, the consistent utilitarian should simply admit that an entrepreneur who creates a great deal of utility on the way to making and keeping huge sums of money is a much better person (a better utility engine) than someone who creates a much smaller amount of utility by giving away all but 10 percent of a relatively small income earned in a job that produces a relatively small amount of utility. One can be a folk moralist or a utilitarian moralist, but not both. If the pursuit of wealth produces more utility than charity — which it often will given the right institutions — then we might wish to reconsider what we are going to count as virtues and vices. Again, maybe Matt has given up on his utilitarianism, in which case he stands some chance of making sense relative to his own ethical assumptions. But I suspect he’s catering to certain popular folk assumptions about the vice of greed to impugn the character of an entire class of people for reasons that are obscure to me. Maybe he can clarify what he’s doing here. 

Now, I am willing to say that, ceteris paribus, a certain kind of grasping, unprincipled pecuniary self-interest is a destructive quality. If that’s greed, then I’m against it. But I’m not willing to say the same thing about the pursuit of wealth generally.

I think we have recently punctured some dangerous misconception about the real value of certain kinds of “financial innovation,” and so we should reconsider how much those who have become wealthy in these fields have actually enhanced general welfare. I think a lot of execs basically failed to do their primary job: to manage their firms’ assets responsibly on behalf of the owners of those assets: the shareholders and creditors. This makes them justifiable targets of outrage. We’ve learned a lot of lessons. I think we’ve been given reason to think much harder about the principal-agent problem — the mismatch of incentives between owners and managers — at the heart of corporate organization. I think we’ve learned just how “socially responsible” maximizing long-term value really is, and how anything that distracts from focus on long-term value creation (whether it be myopic bonus systems or irrelevant-to-the-business “corporate social responsibility” initiatives) is a potentially hazardous nuisance. The Smithian congruence between self-interest and the general welfare is not a natural fact of the world, but is mediated by social norms and the structure of institutions. We need to make sure the desire for wealth takes the right shape, and that the institutions within which people pursue wealth tend to actually work to convert “low” aspirations into real social benefits. But we’ve been given no special reason to second-guess the general utility of the desire to become wealthy. It is a crucial and necessary resource. And it remains a much more likely engine of utility than the desire for political power — a truly dangerous motive Matt tends to ignore.

None of this is to say that I think Vikram Pandit is a prince. For all I know he’s a complete cad. And none of this is to say the man’s a great force for the enhancement of human well-being. As far as I know, he’s done more harm than good. But I don’t know enough about him to say for sure, and I suspect Matt’s in the same position. Anyway, I don’t think we’re likely to do much good if we reduce our view of the world to a children’s cast of villians and heroes, and I’m relieved to hear that Matt’s email list interlocutors won’t agree to his cartoon assumptions.

[Update: See Conor Clarke, who replied in a very similar spirit, but much more concisely.]

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The Moral Psychology of David Brooks

David Brooks’ column on neo-sentimentalist moral psychology is as exasperating as most of his columns drawing on science. They usually go like this:

Scientists have discovered X. Mostly X vanquishes my intellectual bugbears and confirms me in my prejudices. To the extent it doesn’t, science isn’t really an authoritative source of wisdom, now is it?

Here’s this week’s variation:

The rise and now dominance of this emotional approach to morality is an epochal change. It challenges all sorts of traditions. It challenges the bookish way philosophy is conceived by most people. It challenges the Talmudic tradition, with its hyper-rational scrutiny of texts. It challenges the new atheists, who see themselves involved in a war of reason against faith and who have an unwarranted faith in the power of pure reason and in the purity of their own reasoning.

Finally, it should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central. The evolutionary approach also leads many scientists to neglect the concept of individual responsibility and makes it hard for them to appreciate that most people struggle toward goodness, not as a means, but as an end in itself.

Let’s look more closely at a couple of these claims.

  • The rise of "the emotional approach to morality” … “challenges the new atheists.”

What? Pure silliness. There is nothing whatsoever about the new sentimentalism in moral psychology that begins to imply a vindication of faith relative to reason. This is scientific work that uses the rationalist methods of science to understand the centrality of sentiment in humans. It takes the power of reason for granted, and if it is successful work, then it validates the power of reason.

If, say, Haidt is right that most moral judgments are ex post rationalizations of prior emotional responses, then he has not shown that all judgments are ex post rationalizations of prior emotional responses. For example, scientific judgments aren’t like that, or else he wouldn’t have discovered this about moral judgment, he’d just be asserting it. It’s not like Haidt, in showing just how deeply feeling-laden our moral judgments are, has also shown that everything, including the techniques of scientific rationality, is an expression of prejudice. By providing yet another well-grounded scientific explanation, he has demonstrated once again that techniques of scientific rationality are successfully explanatory. In this case, a successful explanation of human moral judgment shows just how prone we are to argue reflexively on behalf of our enculturated moral intuitions. This should decrease our confidences in our intuitions relative to scientific rationality. There is no reason whatsoever to think this will make faith look rosier.

Now, if we think that the lesson here is that most people, who aren’t scientists, don’t change their minds due to good arguments, but because of some kind of socialization or cultural pressure, then it seems to me that the efforts of the “new atheists” have been shown to be all the more necessary. The norms of reason are not native. They are fragile cultural achievements, which makes them all the more precious, and all the more important to vigorously promote. It seems we ought to create social pressure to adopt and respect them, as the “new atheists” do, if we wish to continue to reap the enormous blessings of applied rationality. Brooks is right to see the “new atheists” as apostles of  reason, but their “faith” in it isn’t “unwarranted.” As Brooks seems to recognize when it is convenient for him, science — the institutions of applied reason — works.

  • The rise of “the emotional approach to morality” … “should also challenge the very scientists who study morality. They’re good at explaining how people make judgments about harm and fairness, but they still struggle to explain the feelings of awe, transcendence, patriotism, joy and self-sacrifice, which are not ancillary to most people’s moral experiences, but central.”

First, everything I just said. Second, they just got good at explaining judgments about harm and fairness, so why not expect them to get good at this other stuff? Everything Brooks has said up to this point assumes that the science is good, so one would expect that. But this is where Brooks kicks up a cloud of mystery to leave space for his own prejudices after he has finished using a bit of science to serve his ideological purposes. It’s a good trick: Grant science just enough authority to make it say what you need it to, and then throw that authority into doubt, lest someone else come along and try to make it say something else. Third, I don’t think Brooks has been paying attention even to the people he cites, such as Haidt, who has gone a good way in explaining the religious emotions, the emotions of in-group solidarity (i.e., patriotism) and more.

Making a Virtue of Altruism

Sketchpad post…

The creature moved solely by instrumental, self-regarding rationality has a name: sociopath. A sociopath with supernatural epistemic and computational capacities is called homo economicus oreconomic man.”  A handful of sociopaths exist, but gods live only in myths and textbooks. Flesh and blood human animals are, like the naked mole rat, “hypersocial.” The idea of a species of hypersocial sociopaths is as close as one comes to biological contradiction, which may be why homo economicus has not been observed in the wild. Normal humans are born cooperators — “strong reciprocators” in the language of Gintis and Bowles. “Homo reciprocans” is a conformist beast freighted with culture. A norm sponge. But we humans are not socially programmed robots. We are clever conformists. We can glimpse the advantages in “defection,” in pretending to pull our weight and writing our own rules when it suits us. But why can we do this? Why can we defect? Why aren’t we socially programmed robots? Maybe this: the point of such high-fidelity conformism is the ability to adapt to our environments (or to adapt our environments to us) at the speed of cheetahs compared to natural selection’s dumb glacial grope. The point of high-fidelity conformism is to take advantage of adaptive innovation. So we are equipped with the ability to imagine a better way, which happens to include the ability to imagine shirking or bucking the norm. Sociopathy is not our problem. Imagination—the engine of adaptive conformism—is. Nature’s solution is our taste for “altruistic punishment,” the disposition to hammer norm shirkers despite the personal cost. How not self-interested are we? This not self-interested: We are so obsessed with conformity that we will hurt ourselves to hurt those who refuse to conform. And we don’t even need to know the point of conforming, or whether or not it helps. The stone heaved through the window of the suspicious gentlemen bachelors: this too is altruism. To learn that humans are not sociopaths, are capable of other-regarding acts, are willing to sacrifice ourselves to keep hearts and minds in harmony, is not to discover there is no problem. A main lesson of the Scottish Enlightenment is the possibility and necessity of recruiting potentially destructive self love into the service of public happiness. But if self love is not in fact the mainspring, or the only spring, of human action, then maybe their lesson for us now is that we must also learn to civilize the capacity for norm-enforcing self-sacrifice. What matters is not how we are motivated. What matters is how our higher-order norms (our institutions?) channel and coordinate our various motives to produce the elements of flourishing. What matters is which norms we’re willing to pay dearly to enforce.

Morality: A Kludge of Kludges

If you’ve got a couple hourse to kill, listen to Stephen Stich explain why the human moral sense, such as it is, is a “hodge podge of multi-purpose kludges.” This is one of Stich’s fascinating 2007 Jean-Nicod Lectures. You can follow along with the slides below the video.

Here are the slides.

One upshot, among others, is that you’re not going to develop a useful normative moral theory by testing and refining your moral intuitions against cases. Another, closely related, upshot is that you can have the best scientific theory possible about the evolutionary basis of whatever sentiments and dispositions you think is central to morality, but it’s not going to leave you with anything like a useful or coherent theory of the right or the good. One thing I think some ev psych fans have a hard time getting their heads around is that morality–the system of norms that regulates individual behavior and enables social coordination–is variable by “design,” and that our evolved moral capacities are largely norm-acquisition devices which must wait to be calibrated by enculturation. We’re “fill-in-the-blanks slates” not blank slates. There are what you might consider “factory default” settings. (Which involves a lot of out-group slaughter, I’m afraid.) So, yes, certain configurations of moral sentiments, certain systems of norms, are more “natural” than others. But they lead to relatively terrible societies–nasty, brutish, short, etc. The norms that undergird the peaceful liberal order of impersonal, extended, massively positive-sum exchange are the result of generations of often self-conscious resistance to the “factory defaults.” Which is just to say, T.H. Huxley knew what he was talking about.