Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Horror stories

The two scariest things I've read lately are this essay by Karl Ove Knausgaard, especially this bit:
Killing another person requires a tremendous amount of distance, and the space that makes such distance possible has appeared in the midst of our culture. It has appeared among us, and it exists here, now.
And this from The Beetle Box, for instance:
A genuine commitment to mental health would entail radical commitments to other things: eradicating poverty, exploitation, sexual violence, racism, xenophobia,  sexism, homophobia and bringing a society with genuine educational opportunities for all its members, and the possibility of fulfilment through meaningful employment. Anything else is just putting a band-aid on a bullet wound. 
There's also this, of course.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Could Christian ethics be right?

There 's an interesting paper by Mario Brandhorst in the latest Philosophical Investigations. He discusses some remarks of Wittgenstein's recorded by Rush Rhees:
Someone might ask whether the treatment of such a question [i.e. a question like whether a man should leave his wife in order to pursue research on cancer] in Christian ethics is right or not. I want to say that this question does not make sense. The man who asks it might say: “Suppose I view his problem with a different ethics – perhaps Nietzsche's  and I say: 'No, it is not clear that he must stick to her; on the contrary, . . . and so forth.' Surely one of the two answers must be the right one. It must be possible to decide which of them is right and which is wrong." But we do not know what this decision would be like – how it would be determined, what sort of criteria would be used, and so on. Compare saying that it must be possible to decide which of two standards of accuracy is the right one. We do not even know what a person who asks this question is after.
(Wittgenstein assumes that what Christian ethics demands in this case is that the man stay with his wife.)

Brandhorst argues that:
there can be no correspondence or conflict between our ethical outlook and ethical truth, because there is no such thing as “the ethical truth” independently of our ethical outlook. 
I'm not so sure about this. Wittgenstein does not say that the question of which ethical outlook is right does not make sense. He says that the question whether the Christian treatment of a particular practical moral question is right does not make sense. And the problem is indeed that this amounts to asking whether Christian ethics or some other is right. But the problem with that question is not simply that it does not make sense, as if we could never ask it. The problem is that we do not know how to determine the answer, what criteria to use, and so on. We cannot evaluate values without using values to evaluate them. There can be no value-free evaluation of values.

This is not to say, though, that there can be no evaluation of values at all. Only that there cannot be an 'absolute' judgment of values. Compare the decision about which standard of accuracy to use. Measurement to the nearest inch is not inherently better than measurement to the nearest mile, but for certain purposes one will be much better than the other. One standard of accuracy might indeed be the right one for a particular job. It just won't be the absolutely correct standard according to some fantasy of what "absolute correctness" might mean.

What might make measurement to the nearest mile the right standard of accuracy for a certain project could be that the distances in question are very large, that our measuring equipment can only measure in miles, or that the people who have commissioned the measuring job have specified that they want the answer in whole miles. In a more or less parallel way, we might say that one ethic is better than another, and perhaps even the right one (just not the absolutely correct one), if it is especially well suited to the questions we want to answer, if it gives us answers we can use, and if it recognizes the authorities we recognize. For instance, an ethic that says "Do what an √úbermensch would do" will be no use if we have no idea what such a person would do. The same goes for "Do what will have the best consequences" unless this can be taken to mean "Do what will probably have the best consequences." And "Follow your heart" might be no good if each heart is different (assuming we take that to be a problem). "Obey the magic 8-ball" is no good simply because we cannot take it seriously as an ethic. In other words, we can and do decide between different answers to practical moral problems. We just don't decide in some value-free way. The decision is not made for us by the facts or by logic.

This is very close to what Brandhorst says. But his view, or at least certain things he says, seems a little too conventional to me. Surely someone's ethical outlook can conflict with the ethical truth in the sense of being wrong. Not 'absolutely' wrong, perhaps, but wrong all the same. It isn't nonsense to condemn a Nietzschean, say, as absolutely wrong. That is, let's say a Christian and a Nietzschean are arguing about whether the man should leave his wife or not. If either says that the other is "absolutely wrong" this is intelligible as a complete rejection of the other's position. It should be understood as reflecting the speaker's outlook, of course, not as a statement of scientific fact, but it can be understood nevertheless.

Perhaps the most questionable part of Brandhorst's paper is this:
Ethical words have a use; like logical and mathematical expressions, these words are firmly, and abundantly, woven into the tapestry of our lives. Thus, we ask or demand or wish for certain things of one another; we praise people for what they do or achieve; we promise to do certain things and accept obligations to others; we criticise and we reproach; we lay down and discuss rules for our conduct; we ask ourselves what we should do; we build and revise a conception of how we should live, of what is worth caring about, and of what makes our lives worth living.
All this – and much more could be added – is real. It marks the way we live. It is important to us, shaping our relations to ourselves as well as to others. In this way, it provides the framework for our use of ethical language. So as before, it would be misleading to say that no reality corresponds to that language. Ethical language is not a game played merely for entertainment, nor is it some empty formalism without use.     
Much depends on what is meant by "ethical language." If we mean certain words, as Brandhorst seems to at the start of the first paragraph I just quoted, then we might not want to commit ourselves to saying that they all have a use. We might, for instance, want to say that 'democracy' has become an empty term of praise and 'socialism' an empty insult. We might even want to say that all distinctly ethical words, e.g. 'right', 'wrong', and 'duty', are part of an empty formalism without (genuine) use. What gives words meaning, it seems to me, is their use in the tapestry of our lives, not just their occurrence. When the words that characterize a particular ethic are not useful, do no productive work, then we can reject that ethic as empty or worthless.

My main worry in the end is with the claim that there is no ethical truth independent of our ethical outlook. This might be true. But we need to be careful how we understand it. After all, surely many religious believers would be uncomfortable with something that sounds so close to relativism. Wittgenstein does not mean, surely, to side with Nietzsche against Christianity on the question of whether there are moral facts or an independent reality, such as God, to which we are answerable. His claim is not, say, that there is no God, or that there is no absolute truth about what we ought to do. What he rejects is a certain conception of what this absolute truth might be or how it might be found. What he rejects is not something false but something that we only vaguely imagine has a meaning. That is, we think we can ask whether the Christian answer to the question about what the cancer researcher ought to do is right independent of any criteria of evaluation but we haven't thought through what this would mean. And when we think it through we find that it really has no meaning. But it does not follow, and Wittgenstein does not mean, that no meaning can be found or given to talk of independent ethical truth. He is not putting forward a metaphysical thesis.

Brandhorst's paper is good, and I am not saying that anything in it is wrong. But it could be taken in a way that I think would be wrong. Whether he intended that I have no idea, but the clarification seems worth making.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Annoyed by Fish

I read part of an essay by Stanley Fish recently and found myself annoyed. This is a common reaction among philosophers (see here, herehere, and here, for instance). But why is this? Surely philosophers are used to people saying things they disagree with. Fish does say questionable things, things that have been called into question by Paul Boghossian and by Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox, for instance.

I think it's more, though, that Fish comes so close to Wittgenstein that we expect more, for one thing, and feel as if he is serving up mere leftover (and mangled) crumbs from Wittgenstein's table, for another. As Martin Stone says, "In literary theory, discussion of Wittgenstein and Stanley Fish often occur in the same breath, and it is often said that Fish is “Wittgensteinian” in his views." Perhaps John Holbo hits the nail on the head when he writes, in a review of an anthology called The Literary Wittgenstein, that:
Two pieces are about how Stanley Fish is the opposite of Wittgenstein, in approximately the sense that one man’s modus ponens is another man’s modus tollens. Fish is ponens, Wittgenstein tollens regarding the necessity of interpretation. That is, Wittgenstein sees the wrongness of the conclusion that ‘every reading is an interpretation’ as warranting rejection of premises.
To be fair, I should actually look at what Fish says and not just what other people say about him. Here is some Fish:
While I was in the course of vigorously making a point, one of my students, William Newlin by name, was just as vigorously waving his hand. When I asked the other members of the class what it was that Mr. Newlin was doing, they all answered that he was seeking permission to speak. I then asked them how they knew that. The immediate reply was that it was obvious; what else could he be thought to be doing? The meaning of his gesture, in other words, was right there on its surface, available for reading by anyone who had the eyes to see. That meaning, however, would not have been available to someone without any knowledge of what was involved in being a student. Such a person might have thought that Mr. Newlin was pointing to the fluorescent lights hanging from the ceiling, or calling our attention to some object that was about to fall ("the sky is falling," "the sky is falling"). And if the someone in question were a child of elementary or middle-school age, Mr. Newlin might well have been seen as seeking permission not to speak but to go to the bathroom, an interpretation or reading that would never occur to a student at Johns Hopkins or any other institution of "higher learning" (and how would we explain to the uninitiated the meaning of that phrase).
Context matters, in other words, as does our having learned what certain things mean in certain contexts. This is certainly true, but perhaps so certainly true that it does not need saying at such length. Fish presents the point as if someone might mistakenly think that the meaning of the gesture might be seen by anyone with eyes, but surely literally no one has ever thought this. A gesture or sound that means one thing in one language need not mean the same in another language and will not necessarily be understood by someone who does not know the relevant language. This should not need saying, and Fish's acting as if it does seems pretentious. And hence annoying.

He goes on:
The point is the one I have made so many times before: it is neither the case that the significance of Mr. Newlin's gesture is imprinted on its surface where it need only be read off, or that the construction put on the gesture by everyone in the room was individual and idiosyncratic. Rather, the source of our interpretive unanimity was a structure of interests and understood goals, a structure whose categories so filled our individual consciousnesses that they were rendered as one, immediately investing phenomena with the significance they must have, given the already-in-place assumptions about what someone could possibly be intending (by word or gesture) in a classroom. 
At least if you have read Wittgenstein, and I would think even if you haven't, this is obviously true. And the truth in what Fish says is good. The obviousness of a point that nevertheless keeps being made "so many times" by the same person is annoying though. And there is also a grain of falsehood too. Newlin's gesture is not simply invested with the significance it must have given the context. There is a reason, after all, why Newlin chose to make that gesture in that context. He knew what significance it would necessarily be "given" immediately and unanimously by everyone else present. Because that's the meaning that that gesture has in that context. (This is what it means to say that a gesture "has a meaning" in a given context.)

Fish says that, "One can respond with a cheerful yes to the question "Do readers make meanings?" and commit oneself to very little because it would be equally true to say that meanings, in the form of culturally derived interpretive categories, make readers." The cheerfulness about very little is also annoying because it seems unearned (because one is committed to so little). It is true that if Newlin had waved his hand and no one had understood what he meant then there would have been a failure of communication. But this doesn't often happen because his gesture "must have, given the already-in-place assumptions about what someone could possibly be intending (by word or gesture) in a classroom" the meaning that it has. A meaning that a word or gesture must have given already-in-place assumptions is not a meaning that is created by its audience. Or at least words like 'created' and 'made' are extremely misleading in this context. 'Confirmed,' maybe, although even that seems too strong. The inevitability created by what is already in place suggests that 'recognized' would be a better word.  

It's possible that Fish thinks that meanings must be made because he thinks they must be objects of some kind and recognizes that the audience has a role to play in the process of meaning and understanding. This might be a reason to think that no word or gesture could possibly have a meaning before it occurs and is understood. But this is to think that the meaning of a word must be an object, that having a meaning must be something like having a sandwich or a coin in one's pocket, which is to ignore Wittgenstein's work. I don't know whether to think that's annoying or just weird. Has Fish not thought to read the Philosophical Investigations? If he did but struggled with it, which would hardly be surprising even for a very intelligent reader, did he not think to ask someone what it was about? Or did he start theorizing about meaning without realizing that highly intelligent people have spent a lot of time working on this issue? Or did he realize that and just decide to ignore their work? It's half irritating half bizarre. Maybe I just need to read more Fish, but I don't feel very inclined to do so. 

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The meaning of sex

Whenever I discuss Judith Thomson's defense of abortion with students the discussion always comes around to the question of the meaning of sex. Someone always wants to claim that simply by having sex people (especially women) are asking for, or consenting to, pregnancy. (Usually they try to argue from here that abortion is wrong, but that's not the part that interests me right now.) A version of this argument has been put forward by Laura Wadell Ekstrom. She presented her ideas at the Virginia Philosophical Association in 2002 and I responded. I'm going to put my response below, for what it's worth, although I don't agree with it all any more (which might simply be a matter of how I would express myself now, but might be deeper than that). I was reminded of it by this essay of Michael Pollan's.

Pollan talks about natural law and the naturalistic fallacy in ways that strike me as not quite right. Although I'm basically on his side, I think he is too dismissive of the natural law view of sex. The idea is not that whatever happens in nature is necessarily "moral and ethical," so that if we find animals engaging in polygamy or rape then those things must be OK for us to engage in. It's more that there is some sort of potential coherence in human life that we ought to try to find and live by. It's probably easier to believe that this coherence is there to be found if you believe that God created human life, but the attempt to live coherently seems worthwhile to me independent of the question of God's existence. And, it seems to me, this attempt involves working out or getting clear about the meaning of, for instance, sex, where by 'meaning' I mean the proper place it has in our lives.

The word 'proper' might well sound puritanical, but I mean the place that belongs to it, the most consistent part it can play in our lives. I disagree with the Catholic Church's conclusions about what is and is not OK, but at least it asks good questions. If we celebrate life as a miracle, what sense does it make to use contraception? If we regard all rape as a terrible crime, how can we not regard sex as a big deal? These probably sound like rhetorical questions inviting the kind of answer a Catholic might give, but that's not my point. My thought is more that if we want to reject the traditional Catholic answers (as, to repeat, I do) then we ought to work out better answers than are widely circulated at the moment. The prevailing liberal view seems to be that individual choice is all, so that, roughly, everything consensual is fine and everything non-consensual is bad. But this seems pretty weak to me. Admittedly I am not up-to-date on the philosophy of sex, but I suspect there is work to be done in this area. The discussion here suggests that this is the case.

Anyway, here's my response to Ekstrom:

Making Sex Inviting: A Reply to Laura Waddell Ekstrom

Judith Thomson's aim in her famous defense of abortion is not to defend abortion from all attacks or criticism but to defend it from a specific charge of being unjust.  This I think she does well, meaning that opponents of abortion should try to find other grounds on which to attack it.  They might follow Thomson's own admission that abortion can be selfish, indecent, or callous, and that these charges are no less grave than the charge of injustice.  Professor Ekstrom, though, focuses on the question of justice, arguing that abortion is wrong because it is unjust and that it is unjust because it violates the rights of the fetus.  The right in question is the right to the use of the pregnant woman's body, which the fetus supposedly has because it was granted by the woman's conscious and willing act of heterosexual sexual intercourse (with or without contraception or a desire to become pregnant).  This act of sex, Professor Ekstrom argues, constitutes an invitation to the fetus to occupy the woman's body and use it as it needs.

I have three main objections to this line of argument.  The first concerns the invitation, the second concerns the sexual act, and the third concerns the fetus.  Ekstrom rightly points out that "Lack of invitation to a particular fetus does not entail lack of invitation."  Invitations to yard sales and office hours can be quite open and still are invitations.  But they are invitations made to the general public, which consists of actually existing people.  Ekstrom's invitation is made to something that has only potential existence.  Perhaps my fear of metaphysical murk is irrational, but I would hesitate to class potential existence as a kind of existence.  And an invitation to something that does not exist is no invitation in my book.  Especially when the invitation in question is neither written nor verbal but supposedly implicit.

Secondly there is Ekstrom's insistence that engaging in heterosexual genital sex is inviting a potential fetus into being.  I would insist here that everything is what it is and not another thing.  Sex is sex.  It can be thought of as invitation, but it can equally be thought of as hosting a mixer.  If a partnership arises as a result of a mixer that I threw, do I therefore have a special obligation to refrain from breaking up that partnership?  Not particularly, surely.  It all depends on the nature of the partnership.  If it is a criminal conspiracy then I should break it up.  If it is a true love match then I should not.  My role in bringing it into being is neither here nor there. 

Ekstrom says that the pregnant woman and her partner "caused [the fetus] to be present inside the woman's body, and they caused it to be dependent upon her for its continued life."  The first part of this claim is true but the second is false.  It is nature that caused fetuses in wombs to be dependent on the women whose wombs these are for their continued life. 

In Ekstrom's view the following argument "has a great deal of plausibility":

"(1) If one person depends on the continued use of another person's body in order to survive, and (2) if the second person acted in a manner that brought about this state of affairs, (3) then the second person has thereby granted the right to the use of his or her body to the dependent person and would be wrong to deny the dependent person that use." 

So imagine a plane crash on an icy mountain.  The only food available to the passenger is the body of the pilot, who is still alive.  Condition 1 is met and so is condition 2 if we assume that the crash was a result of pilot error.  Is it plausible that it would be wrong for the pilot to object, perhaps on religious grounds, to being cannibalized?  Surely not.  One might argue that the pilot did not bring about the iciness of the mountain, but then the woman did not bring about the inability of fetuses to survive without maternal sustenance.  I think this argument is in fact not plausible at all.

But of course there is much more to Ekstrom's argument than this.  She agues that sex is an invitation to a fetus because pregnancy is a result of sex that is possible, non-negligible, natural, and foreseeable.  By 'natural' I take it she means 'not requiring artificial help' rather than 'according to God's plan' or anything like that.  All this boils down to the fact that pregnancy is a foreseeable result of heterosexual genital sex (which I will simply call sex from now on) just as getting wet is a foreseeable result of going out in the rain.  Indeed this is the only natural way to get wet with rain water.  Does this mean somehow that one is inviting rain-wetness if one goes out in the rain?  Yes of course, but only in a metaphorical sense.  And of course it is not thereby wrong to remove the unwanted water upon coming back inside.

Ekstrom's final attempt to make sex inviting (i.e. to recast the act of sex as an act of invitation) involves an analogy with starting a race by waving a flag.  In the case of the race, though, there is a social convention that makes flag-waving race-starting.  There is no such convention in the case of sex.  For one thing, the fetus does not even exist yet and so is not part of society.  For another, the only consensus about sex is that it is sex.  Pro-life people might share an intuition that sex is fetal-invitation, but this intuition is not universal and cannot ground a pro-life position.

Finally I said I would say something about the fetus itself.  Let us grant Ekstrom's contention that a fetal invitation has been issued.  Do invitees just as such have a right to whatever they were invited to?  Even Ekstrom admits that they do not.  It all depends on what is at stake.  So the whole argument for sex as invitation starts to look like a red herring.  The real issue is whether the life of the fetus is enough to make abortion (withdrawing the invitation) unjust.  Here Ekstrom relies on a well-known argument from Don Marquis.

Marquis tries to analyze what it is that makes killing people in general wrong.  His conclusion is that it is primarily the fact that such killing deprives people of the future they would otherwise have enjoyed.  Since fetuses have such a future, the argument goes, abortion is wrong too.

There has been some debate about whether fetuses really do have a future like ours in this respect.  I contend that no one does.  Again we are in the realm of metaphysics, but I would say that the future does not exist.  There is no such set as the set of events that are going to take place, or that would happen if x (or if not x).  I don't think I need to appeal to quantum indeterminacy in order to make my case, but I will do if necessary.  Given that my future is not some thing that I now have, what it means to deprive me of it is something that needs some analysis.  I suspect that "depriving someone of his or her future" is in fact simply a partial euphemism for killing someone.  It will not, if I am right, do as an explanation of why killing people is wrong.  Even if I am wrong about this, no such consequentialist consideration can capture the injustice of murder.  Murder is not all right if the victim in fact has no future.  And abortion (or miscarriage) is not much worse than the murder (or sudden death) of an adult human being, even though the fetus might be expected to have more future ahead of it than the adult.  Anyone who thinks otherwise is out of step with common intuitions. So I think that Marquis's argument is not a good one to fall back on.

Finally let me make one last small argument that is rather more radically feminist than I would expect from myself.  Holly Smith has argued that if sex means giving up one's right to the exclusive use of one's body then women are effectively coerced into doing so since the cost of abstinence is extreme.  Ekstrom responds that it is not highly costly.  I can't define what is extreme or high in this matter, but I would say that the cost of sexual abstinence is high.  A government that gave the right to vote only to celibates and those prepared to have and raise more children would be rightly considered coercive in my book.  But I can't say how much cost there must be for something to count as coercion.  Suffice to say my sympathies lie more with Holly Smith on this point.            

Monday, May 4, 2015

Poor economics II

I said before that I would give more of my impressions about the online course based on Poor Economics that I was taking. The course is now over (I passed!) and so I'll say what few things I can think of that I haven't already said. Mostly I liked the course and think that Banerjee and Duflo are doing good work. I very much like their empirical approach, which is miles away from the kind of armchair here's-why-a-minimum-wage-will-never-work stuff that puts me off a lot of economics. The results are inevitably modest, but they aren't always just confirmations of the obvious. So it seems worthwhile.

Two things struck me as questionable: the appeal to mathematics and the assumption of utilitarianism. Complicated equations are periodically brought in to illustrate or explain certain points, in a way that struck me as unnecessary. I think it's at least excusable, though, if students are to learn to evaluate Duflo's and Banerjee's work for themselves or to carry out such work independently in future. In other words, it was not necessary in this course but as preparation for related work afterwards it might be useful. I don't know.

The maths felt a bit like a display of rigor, a way to show that what was being done was at least related to academic seriousness and intellectual difficulty. It made me think about rigor-accessories in other subjects. In philosophy, for instance, you might have to pass exams in formal logic and a foreign language to get a PhD. And some papers bring in formal logic in seemingly needless ways to demonstrate rigor. I'm suspicious of this kind of thing, but I can't say it's always a waste of time.

I was reminded of all that when I read this rejection of economics. I don't agree that economics should just be scrapped, but there is something to this:
Biology uses maths when it needs it, but gets on very well as a perfectly rigorous scientific discipline most of the time without it.  In spite of the prejudice of some scientists towards the mathematical, nobody feels that biology needs more equations to be taken seriously.
But there is one academic discipline that does seem to feel the need to dress up its ideas in mathematical language.  Economists have always dabbled in numbers, and have become more and more enamoured of them as the years go by.  Economics as taught at university level is now full of differential equations and the like.
Mathematical, formal, and technical language certainly can be useful, but they can so easily be reached for as something to hide behind that it's often worth being suspicious and, where possible, ignoring them to focus on what is actually being said rather than the impressively learned way it is being presented. In ordinary language philosophy there is no such hiding, which is a good thing.

Possibly more problematic for Duflo and Banerjee is their consequentialism, which is mostly under the surface and not explicitly recognized or defended even when it comes into plain view. The main example I can think of concerns microcredit organizations. Muhammad Yunus argues (or at least asserts) that:
credit programs that seek to profit from the suffering of the poor should not be described as “microcredit,” and investors who own such programs should not be allowed to benefit from the trust and respect that microcredit banks have rightly earned.    
He is concerned, in part, with the mission of microcredit banks, which he thinks should be to relieve suffering caused by poverty rather than to make a profit. Banerjee and Duflo counter that profitable banks do relieve the suffering of the poor. They are probably right, but they are ignoring the moral aspect of Yunus' complaint. He says:
Commercialization has been a terrible wrong turn for microfinance, and it indicates a worrying “mission drift” in the motivation of those lending to the poor. Poverty should be eradicated, not seen as a money-making opportunity.
It's true that he goes on to talk about the kind of practical problems that would concern a consequentialist, but he seems also to care about motivation, not just consequences. There is something obscene, one might think, about seeing poverty as a money-making opportunity. This kind of concern, whether ultimately reasonable or not, is simply ignored by Duflo and Banerjee. Nor do they say that this is a philosophical question and that students who are interested in it should take a relevant ethics course. They just ignore it, as if it did not exist.

This kind of philosophy blindness seems to be common. My local city council is currently considering whether to continue giving money to organizations that provide various more or less charitable services. One member of the council has reportedly said that he wishes he could support them but that it simply isn't the function of government to do so. This is to treat a philosophical or ideological position as if it were something like a physical law. A friend of mine who heard about the problem suggested that the council needs more facts, and denied that there are questions of value that could not be solved by the gathering of more facts. Having just typed this I think I must have misunderstood what he was saying, but he seemed to want to deny the fact/value distinction so entirely that he ended up talking about ideas concerning the proper function of government as if they could be evaluated purely by looking at data. I have also known people talk as if moral relativism is just undeniably true and others to take utilitarianism to be so obviously right that they didn't even recognize that it is a debatable position. In short, a lot of educated people seem to be unable to identify philosophical issues. It's a sort of blindness to the existence of questions, of various logical spaces, of the possibility of thinking differently.

I think that if everyone's education included consideration of, for instance, the fact/value distinction and some basic ethical theory then the problem would be reduced (though not eradicated). Someone might then remind people suffering from temporary blindness of their high school or college philosophy course. But how many introductory-level philosophy courses spend much time on the fact/value distinction? Mine don't. And the problem might not be so much the ability to see these questions but the willingness to look. A lot of what looks like stupidity is a failure to think about causal connections. This kind of thing: if I leave the gate open and then open the door the dog might run out, which will be bad. Or: if I move into that lane now then the car nearest me will have to slow down suddenly, which could cause an accident, which will be bad. It's not that people can't think that far ahead but too often they don't bother to do so. Partly, I think, because the "which will be bad" part is erased by a giant WHATEVER. 

That, I suppose, is because we are imperfect creatures. And because we are so occupied by other things. And we don't get enough sleep. But also because we don't have as much of a sense of the reality of other people as we should. Our attitude towards them is not an attitude towards a soul but more like the attitude we have towards a minor character in a movie. They look human but their fate is no concern of ours. This is partly because there are so many people around that it is hard to care much about all of them. Perhaps it is also because we watch so much TV, play so many computer games, and spend so much time online. And when we do these things we are inside, interacting with no one, practicing passivity. That might not change our thinking or our behavior, but it is in line with our tendency not to think of ourselves as having any kind of role to play in society, any kind of job to do other than one that pays us money. I saw someone recently telling people in the UK that it is their duty to vote in the upcoming election. The very idea of duty seems extremely old-fashioned. Who now believes that we have any such thing? Of those who do, how many care much about it?

There clearly are people who have a strong sense of community and of something that might be called duty, whether they would use that word or not. But the number of such people seems to be going down. Margaret Thatcher's claim that there is no such thing as society was shocking at the time. It now seems commonplace. So far as that kind of individualism goes hand in hand with a certain kind of economics, it is good to see economists like Banerjee and Duflo doing something else.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Value added

The Brookings Institution, which somehow gets to have an .edu web address, has a new "value-added" ranking of colleges and universities in the USA. The idea, supposedly, is to rank according to how much graduates go on to earn compared with what someone with similar qualifications might be expected to earn if they did not go to that college or university. There are some surprising results, including this. Two of the top fourteen four-year colleges and universities in the ranking are in the small town where I live. (I teach at the 14th-ranked school.) This means I know something about these schools and can speculate plausibly about how they add value.

Three things probably account for my school's high ranking in this case: engineering, the military, and alumni loyalty. Institutes of Technology do very well in this ranking, and our engineering program almost certainly leads to relatively high-paying jobs for some of our graduates. Another ranking I saw that was on similar lines to the Brookings one (this one, perhaps) gave very high marks to military academies, and my school is a similar kind of place. I have heard that it is unofficially regarded as the United States Marine Corps' academy. So that probably helps (because of military pensions perhaps, I don't know). And finally, we have extremely high rates of alumni donations and, presumably, loyalty. Our alumni network is often mentioned as a benefit to graduates seeking jobs. It looks as though there is something to this.

Higher up the ranking is our immediate neighbor, which has no military connection and a more limited engineering program. It has a robust fraternity and sorority system, so it might have greater bonding and hence loyalty for that reason.

In both cases I think the value added (assuming the ranking is not just so flawed that it is completely meaningless) is more likely to come from connections than from the quality of the education provided. Not because these are not good schools, but because there is no reason I can see to think that these schools are better in terms of faculty and teaching, for instance, than many other schools that are lower ranked. In other words, this new ranking is more evidence that it's not what you know but who you know that matters.