Here’s how The Economist recently defined wisdom:
The assessors scored participants’ responses on a scale of one to three. This attempted to capture the degree to which they discussed what psychologists consider five crucial aspects of wise reasoning: willingness to seek opportunities to resolve conflict; willingness to search for compromise; recognition of the limits of personal knowledge; awareness that more than one perspective on a problem can exist; and appreciation of the fact that things may get worse before they get better.
This got me thinking about the brilliant stars of the econ blogosphere. Which ones are wise? And which ones are merely brilliant?
Tyler Cowen recently linked to a 3 year old interview with Peter Singer that he called one of his “favorite outputs.” That’s enough recommendation for me. And indeed the interview was dazzling, but partly in the way that the brilliance of a top NBA team is most obvious when in runs all over a weaker team playing on the road and exhausted from 4 games in 5 nights. (For those who don’t follow the NBA, playoff games are often “ugly,” as both defenses try really hard. The athletic greatness of players is often most apparent in regular season games.)
Peter Singer is a brilliant philosopher–one of the world’s best advocates of utilitarianism. And yet in this exchange Tyler Cowen seemed to play the role of the philosopher, whereas Singer seemed more like the stereotypical economist. To use another basketball analogy—Singer played the role of the Washington Generals.
See if you share my stereotypes: Economists are monomaniacally focused on maximizing aggregate utility. We view the marginal utility of income as declining as income rises, and thus believe that transferring money from the rich to the poor will increase total welfare, unless the disincentives effects of those transfers are too high. That was pretty much Singer. Philosophers are wise men who understand that “more than one perspective on a problem can exist.” They like to play with ideas, probe an issue from many different directions. That was Tyler Cowen.
The interview addressed a recent book by Singer, where he called for people in affluent countries to give more money to charity, even suggesting some percentages based on income levels. Tyler started the interview by agreeing with Singer about the value of charity:
Let me first stress: I agree with most of what’s in your book; I think we all could give more and should give more. It would be good for other people and it would be good for ourselves. But let me start off the dialogue by mentioning a few points where I don’t completely agree with you. One thing that struck me about the book was some of the omissions.
Then Tyler started to play around with the implications of utilitarianism. For instance, what changes would actually most help the poor:
If I ask myself, historically, what has been the most successful anti-poverty program in the last century, I look at Communist China, and I would say that the reforms, starting in the late 1970s, have taken at least 300M-400M people, and probably more, and taken them from extreme poverty, perhaps starvation, to a situation where a lot of them live quite well or at least have some kind of tolerable lower middle class existence. I think that property rights and institutional reforms are the key to fighting poverty. China during that period, the aid it received didn’t matter much. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t give aid, I’m all for aid, but isn’t the big leveraged investment here changing and improving institutions and not giving money?
And then there’s this:
For instance, in my view, what is by far the best anti-poverty program, the only one that’s really been shown to work, and that’s what’s called “immigration”. I don’t even see the word “immigration” in your book’s index. So why don’t we spend a lot more resources allowing immigration, supporting immigration, lobbying for immigration? This raises people’s incomes very dramatically, it’s sustainable, for the most part it’s also good for us. Why not make that the centerpiece of an anti-poverty platform?
You mentioned Paul Collier. I found his book very interesting. One argument he makes–I would say I’m not, myself, convinced but I’m curious to hear what you think–is that we could do the world a great deal of good by selective military interventions. So take the case of Darfur. A large number of people are suffering, dying. Collier says, or implies, or at least opens the possibility, that we, the United States, the UN, whoever, should just move in and in military terms do something about this. It is again a topic that is not prominent in your book, but it seems that if it can work it’s highly leveraged, more leveraged than giving away money. I’m curious as to your views on that.
Let’s say I’m an 18 year old and I’m in college, and I’ve read your book and I’m more or less convinced by it, and I say to you “well what I’ve decided to do is I’m going to have a career in the cell phone industry because I see that cell phones are revolutionizing Africa and making many people much better off. I’m not going to give a dime to poverty but I’m going to work my hardest to become a millionaire by making cheaper and better cell phones.” What do you say to me? . . . Am I a better person than someone who’s earned $40K/year and every year given 15% of it away to the poor in India?
Tyler also played around with the implications of utilitarianism in a number of clever ways. In one section he mentioned the option of increasing the tax deduction on charitable contributions, so long as they went to anti-poverty type charities. Singer agreed, and Tyler responded:
So, in other words, you favor a kind of tax cut as a way to help the world’s poor. That, in this country, if targeted properly, tax policy, in essence cutting the taxes of rich people, is one of the very best ways to help the world’s poor. Would you sign on to that?
He also presented some hypothetical scenarios where human nature seems to conflict with utilitarianism:
What I see in your book is a tendency to say something like “people, whether we like it or not, will be more committed to their own life projects than to giving money to others and we need to work within that constraint”. I think we would both agree with that, but when we get to the deeper human nature, or do you feel it represents a human imperfection? If we could somehow question of “do we in fact like that fact?”, is that a fact you’re comfortable with about human nature? If we could imagine an alternative world, where people were, say, only 30% as committed to their personal projects as are the people we know, say the world is more like, in some ways, an ant colony, people are committed to the greater good of the species. Would that be a positive change in human nature or a negative change?
Let’s say genetic engineering is possible, which is now not so far off on the major scale, and your daughter were having a daughter, and she asked you “daddy, should I program my daughter so that she’s willing to sell her baby and take the money and send it to Haitians to save ten babies in Haiti”. Would you recommend to her “yes, you should program the genes of your baby so she’s that way”?
I exaggerated a bit at the beginning when I said Singer came across more as the economist. Tyler did use economic concepts to probe some flaws in Singer’s reasoning:
I’m a big fan of what I call zero overhead giving, that is I send monetary transfers to poor people, maybe I’ve met them on my travels, by Western Union. I don’t follow up, I don’t monitor, there’s no tax deduction, there’s no overhead, it’s just money from me to them. What do you think of that as a way of giving? . . . Keep in mind, you’re a Preference Utilitarian. That doesn’t mean public goods can’t be more valuable, but the tendency of a Preference Utilitiarian should be to just give people resources and let them do what they want, no?
And marginal analysis:
Let me ask you a question about animal welfare. I have been very influenced by a lot of what you’ve written, but I’m also not a pure vegetarian by any means, and when it comes to morality, for instance, my view is that it’s perfectly fine to eat fish. . . . My tendency is to think that fish are ruled by a Malthusian model, and being eaten by another fish has to be painful. Maybe it’s over quickly, but having your organs burst as you’re pulled up out of the water is probably also pretty quick. I would again think that in marginal terms it doesn’t matter, but I’m more struck by the fact that it’s not your first instinct to view the question in marginal terms. You view us as active agents and ask “are we behaving in some manner which is moral, and you’re imposing a non-Utilitarian theory on our behavior.
Read the whole thing. I’ve left out Singer’s responses. There are certainly not unintelligent, he’s a very bright philosopher. Yet I was struck by the fact that he didn’t seem to have previously given any thought to many of the issues raised by Tyler. You might argue that philosophers are concerned with broad principles, not the messy details of implementation. But Singer is very concerned with the issue of how best to implement utilitarianism. Tyler’s questions were exactly the sort of thought experiments that philosophers wrestle with all the time. It also got me wondering about all sorts of side issues:
1. I’d love to see the American public polled on whether they’d prefer our current foreign aid budget be replaced with an equally costly policy of having military cargo planes fly over rural areas of developing countries, dropping lots of $1 Federal Reserve Notes. Would Americans view it as a crackpot scheme, likely to put money in the hands of those not truly needy? Or do they have a cynical view that most foreign aid enriches the corrupt governing elites of developing countries? I honestly don’t know.
2. Following up on the “cell phone entrepreneur as utilitarian hero” theme, what about the recently deceased painter Thomas Kinkade? (He produced lots of pretty, light-filled paintings that were universally dismissed by those with more sophisticated taste.) Should the aesthetic elite swallow their pride, and hail him as a hero who brought great joy to the homes of millions of ordinary people? Are liberal utilitarians both income egalitarians and aesthetic snobs?
There was a recent discussion of “labels” in the blogosphere. I consider myself to be a utilitarian in much the same way I am a libertarian. I don’t start out reasoning: “I’m a libertarian, and hence I must believe X.” Rather I notice that many of my beliefs put me in the libertarian camp. Similarly, I notice that in most of the disputes pitting utilitarianism with deontological approaches (such as the view that organ sales are disgusting, or taxation is theft) I end up in the utilitarian camp.
It seems to me that most criticism of utilitarianism is flawed in one of two ways:
1. Some critics will complain that utilitarianism sanctions behavior X, which is obviously morally revolting. Thus I was quite proud to find out yesterday that Jeremy Bentham wrote a defense of homosexuality at a time when the punishment for sodomy was hanging. In my view, utilitarianism is the direction of history, the evolution of our moral sensibilities that occurs with greater education and exposure to diversity of lifestyles. I wish I had Bentham’s courage.
2. Some critics will take advantage of our lack of imagination; pitting the acute suffering of one person against small benefits to millions. It’s easier to empathize with the acute suffering, and yet in our everyday life (flu vaccines, driving 65MPH), we often trade off a few lives to make things a bit more comfortable for the rest of us. An even more egregious example occurs when people say “Suppose horrible situation X result in higher aggregate utility. Would you favor horrible situation X.” They usually pick an example that would not in fact increase aggregate utility. They then try to get you to say you approve of horrible situation X, so that in their blog they can say “Sumner supports horrible situation X, he must be a really bad man.” But if you ask why X would be so bad, all they can say is “consider the suffering.” Exactly.
No need to be ashamed to call yourself a utilitarian. But it doesn’t really answer any questions, it’s merely a label that describes where some people tend to end up.