Thick and many-legged

“Cruel” simply ignores the supposed fact / value dichotomy and cheerfully allows itself to be used sometimes for a normative purpose and sometimes as a descriptive term. (Indeed, the same is true of the term “crime”.) In the literature, such concepts are often referred to as “thick concepts”.

Hilary Putnam, The Collapse of the Fact / Value Distinction (“FV”), Harvard, 2002, p. 35.

It is as if they wanted to see ethics as a noble statue standing at the top of a single pillar. My image is rather different. My image would be a table with many legs. We all know that a table with many legs wobbles when the floor on which it stands is not even, but such a table is very hard to turn over, and that is how I see ethics…..

Hilary Putnam, Ethics Without Ontology (“EO”), Harvard, 2004, p. 28.

Reason has its use not only in the pursuit of a given set of objectives and values, but also in scrutinizing the objectives and values themselves.

Amartya Sen, Rationality and Freedom (“R&F”), p.39.

Like Richard Rorty in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature, Hilary Putnam and Amartya Sen propose new directions for their disciplines, and Sen (the instigator) goes further and actually begins doing the ethically thick economics work he advocates. The sad thing is that these authors are really only saying that we should begin to repair the damage done by 70 years or more of positivist dominance. Their thesis — that valid ethical discourse is possible and not inimical to science — is actually revolutionary only for a few contemporary academic disciplines, and was taken for granted by most philosophers and economics before about 1930 (as it still is today by most non-experts).

Putnam’s advocacy of a thick, many-legged (polypoidal) philosophy amounts to the rejection of several main tenets of contemporary Anglo-American philosophy: the ontological approach, scientism, and the pursuit of clarity and “rigor” at the cost of everything else. Many of Putnam’s criticisms have something in common to those Rorty has been making for three decades now, except that Putnam stresses the possibility of ethical discourse rather than advocating liberal openness and anti-foundationalism. Both want philosophy to become public philosophy once more, but Rorty has actually done public philosophy (as has Sen), whereas Putnam is mostly just pointing in that direction.

For reasons much like Rorty’s and Putnam’s I have been so dissatisfied with analytic philosophy that I never really became a philosopher at all. In particular, I have thought that scientistic approaches to social, ethical, political, and personal questions (in philosophy and also in the social sciences) probably do at least as much harm than good. There’s a good chance that someone who’s spent a year studying introductory economics or analytic ethics will end up significantly more confused and wrong-headed than they had been when they started.

I would carry the thickening and polypedification of philosophy much farther than Putnam would. Philosophy needs to deal with indexicality (so-called “subjectivity”) as something other than a source of error. It has to recognize that the future is open and indeterminate and that, of necessity, all humans face an unknowable future in the process of being made. “Truth” is only about the past and the eternal and universal, but philosophy also needs to learn to deal with the future and projects. Philosophy has to fully accept not only ethics, but also practical reason governing action. Practical engagement is not a debased form of theory, but a way of making reality, and (as a kind of experimentation) an essential source of knowledge. And last of all, thick philosophy, as an essentially-contested, normative form of projective, practical, social / personal reason oriented toward the not-yet (the unknown, unformed, and nonexistent future), needs to be oriented both toward truth and toward persuasion, since the future becomes real in part through human intention.

Ethics as Practical Reason

“Ethical decision” is a special case of “practical decision.

Hilary Putnam, EO, p. 77

The distinction between practical reason and theoretical reason is key. Philosophy tends toward theoreticism – the idea that the real truths are universal theoretical truths and that intellectual progress consists of the improvement of theory. Applications to particular situations are uninteresting, either because they’re routine, or because they’re messy and kludgy compromises. Most philosophers have held some version of this view, but with logical positivism the ethical aspect of practical reason itself (which had previously been thought to be rationally grounded and arguable) came to be regarded as sub-rational too. A version of this belief survived in analytic philosophy, and it is this which Putnam is arguing against.

Practical reason works with concrete actualities in real time and has to account for all the details that theory brackets out in order to make the material manageable. Theorists assume that these details are of marginal importance and that the theoretical substrate is what’s really real, but this is only ever more-or-less true, and in some cases it is not true at all. And often the contaminating factors are not well theorized or well understood, with the result that the best practical applications often seem intellectually shoddy to theorists. Theorists often bracket out important but as-yet-untheorized aspects of reality (e.g. friction, history, turbulence, and contingency), whereas applied scientists cannot do so and are in that sense closer to the truth.

One name for applied science, as opposed to theoretical science, is “engineering” (a word which also can be stretched to describe applied sciences such as medicine, agronomy, and forestry which are not usually called by that name.) Engineering is science bent to some purpose, and these purposes can vary — for example, a microorganism which medicine tries to kill might be the same one that enology tries to produce. It can thus be said that engineering, as goal-defined, is normative. Engineering does not contradict science, but it has additional normative criteria that science does not have – science is cholera-neutral, medicine is not. Furthermore, engineering must deal with normatively-significant actualities in their totality, even if that means using rules of thumb and guesswork when necessary, whereas science has the privilege of defining and selecting its objects according to the degree of scientific rigor that can be attained in dealing with them, and postponing the study of scientifically-less-promising objects (which Chomsky calls “mysteries” as opposed to “problems”.)

Ethics discusses goals, but positivists assert that ends are rationally undiscussable and can only be taken as given. In this positivists agree with existentialists, cynics, nihilists, irrationalists, mystics, and bloody-minded political realists. For the defeatist perfectionists of positivism, rational discussion can only be scientific, logical, or mathematical – the writings of ethicists and political theorists are just hand-waving nonsense. (Hume: Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.). Nonetheless, the applied sciences are just as normative as ethics is — their goals are just assumed and out of the question, but never discussed. Only means are thought of, and with this we have the triumph of technical thinking, with goals established within the given structure of property ownership and political power. In this way philosophy relinquishes the field, leaving life under the control of power, emotion and “subjectivity”.


I venture the judgment, however, that currently in the Western world, and especially in the United States, differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action – differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive economics – rather than fundamental differences about basic values, differences about which men can only fight.

Milton Friedman, “The Methodology of Positive Economics” in Essays in Positive Economics, Chicago, 1953, p. 5.

Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Consign it then to the flames: For it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, XII:3.

In this short, influential passage Friedman makes several distinct errors. First, he simply dismisses normative economics, which does not appear again in the chapter. (Elsewhere in the essay he makes it clear that for him normative economics is entirely a subjective source of error and bias, and not at all a source of insight.) Second, he assumes that normative differences about economic policy are unimportant, since there’s a general consensus. And last, he assumes that normative disagreements cannot be discussed, but only fought about. The effect of these errors is to wire tacit value judgments into a supposedly “positive” but actually crypto-normative theory, thus producing a practical-theoretical chimera which makes some applications almost automatic and others hard even to propose at all. Putnam thinks of normative thinking as a species of practical reason to be distinguished from engineering, public administration, etc., but you could just as well to think of engineering as a species of normative (goal-oriented) thinking distinguished by its fixed and narrowed (“realistic”, “pragmatic”, or “technical”) normativity.

All of the hard sciences make a distinction between science and engineering. On the one side you have physics, chemistry, and biology. On the other side you have mechanical engineering, civil engineering, chemical engineering, electrical engineering, medicine, agronomy, and so on. There’s no real difficulty with this. Engineering accepts science, adapts it to make it usable, and applies it to a range of human goals. Engineering is science constrained by practical imperatives, not an impure or defective science, and not science distorted by normativity, and engineering will vary with the purposes desired: physics does not dictate human goals.

So whatever happened to applied economics? To my knowledge that field makes no systematic theoretical-applied distinction – it’s all the same department. Putnam objects to the “engineering approach”, whereby “thin”, value-free science is first developed, with “values” (goals, ends) only added at the last stage. But with economics we really do not have clearly-distinguished theoretical and applied sciences at all. Instead we have a toxic confusion. It is first claimed that economics is valid and “a real science” precisely because it is value-free and objective. It is claimed next that, precisely because economics is value-free, objective, and scientific, it should be authoritative on policy questions. Authority has been attained by a method forbidding all discussion of goals. Specific economic goals or tacitly stipulated, and “economics engineering” is not an autonomous field and is not clearly distinguished from theoretical economics. If it were, economists could not claim the authority of science for their policy proposals, and disagreements about social goals (economic engineering) would not cause economic science to splinter into contending schools.

In true engineering fields “values” are discussible in terms of a range of goals or objectives, but by its definitions and exclusions economic theory limits possible goals to one rather small specifically economic set, on the assumption that economics is fundamental and real whereas all other possible goals are either derivative or illusory. The values or goals have been drawn up into the theory, which is presented as purely scientific and objective, thus producing an ethically-skewed theoretical science with only a narrow range of possible applications. The problem is not “the engineering approach” per se, but the fact that engineering and science are not clearly distinguished.

Rationality and Social Choice

For example, orthodox doctrine in economics since about 1950 has been that 1.) there’s no way to compare the utilities of different individuals, since utility is private and subjective, 2.) there’s no way to devise a voting system for even a fairly small group which will make it possible to come up with a group decision which will be fair to everyone, and 3.) “economic rationality” is just the consistent pursuit of self-interest or desire, as defined by the individual. (Sen’s work critiques this orthodoxy and works to develop an alternative).

All three of these principles have an ethical and political skew. For example, “economic rationality” is in theory a purely formal definition (neither a description of actual behavior nor a proposed ideal). According to this definition, a sociopath can be completely rational, whereas a seeming self-sacrificing individual must be seen either to be irrational or else secretly selfish after all. Economic rationality does not forbid generosity or fellow-feeling, but these are merely treated as consumption options. An economic actor who does not have a taste for generosity or decency will be completely rational in behaving cruelly within the bounds of law if that’s what works for him. In short, this definition of rationality assumes individuals with no necessary social commitments, and while it is possible to tweak the system and patch in the possibility of individuals who follow extra-economic ethical principles, they are at best equally as rational as cold-bloodedly selfish individuals or even successful sociopaths.

Likewise, the refutation of the possibility of democratic social choice seems to prove that social or political decisions will inevitably be unfair to someone, whereas in the market each person gets what he is willing to pay for. And finally, the impossibility of making interpersonal comparisons of utilities means that it is not possible to look at any market system and say that its outcomes have been humanly bad: there’s just no way to say that a swimming pool for one man produces less utility than ten thousand doses of penicillin. (Hidden within this judgment is, in fact an ethical principle, albeit a negative one: human beings have no intrinsic value except insofar as they contribute to the economy, and deserve only what they earn themselves, plus whatever gifts more-productive individuals care to give them).1

And many additional built-in ethical blind spots of economic theory not discussed by Sen can be listed: toward family and toward women, toward local community, toward the physical environment, toward non-market forms of organization (which always look bad when analyzed as markets), and toward future generations. Traditional economic theory was a crypto-normative chimera which did not separate science and engineering and which prejudged key issues (often tacitly, by systematically ignoring them). It was not neutral and it was poorly applicable to any goal other than the advancement of market forms of organization and the near-future maximization of production, consumption, wealth-accumulation, and trade.

For many decades neoclassical economic engineering has been increasing its influence in the world of policy, and it is reshaping the world as we speak. The scientific blind spots and engineering biases I’ve been describing have been institutionalized and have also been developed into a toxic ideology called libertarianism. Perhaps the best economists of today have left these problems behind them. Perhaps. But as far as I can tell, the other ones still run the show. Thick, polypodous economics is still in the future.


1. For a long time economics tended to treat the intellectual difficulties pertaining to interpersonal utility comparisons or social choice as proofs of impossibility and as reasons to abandon or denigrate all efforts to do so. This was only one of the possible responses, however. Another would have been to work diligently to solve the problem, and still another would be to come up with a temporary fudge or approximation allowing work to continue until a better answer was achievable — a very common practice in other areas of economics. (According to Geoffrey Hodgson, economic theory “works principally through its auxiliary [ad hoc] assumptions” — How Economics Forgot History, p. 254).

I suppose that many economists did try to solve these problems or to find approximations, but many did not, because they did not want answers. They did not want non-market forms of social choice, and they did not want to have to consider the human costs of inequality.

Published in: on January 11, 2008 at 3:39 pm  Leave a Comment  

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