EDIT: I’ve since finished this book and posted a review on Goodreads.
As a former behavioural economist, it’s good to see the expansion of the position that the Enlightenment brought the Western world an Age of Reason, but it failed to see how little capacity most humans have for reason even regarding mundane affairs.
Fundamental attribution bias is clearly at play, as the authors of these Enlightenment works were high-intellect individuals. I respect greatly the likes of Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and their near contemporaries, but the world they envisaged was based on an invalid premise.
In the realm of governance, one might try to argue that Plato was trying to address this in his admonishment of democracy in favour of The Republic, but he, too, was incorrect, essentially not seeing principle-agent problems as well as predicating a system on the notion of virtue—naive, to say the least.
I’ve been tremendously busy in my day job, so I haven’t been able to contribute here as much as I’d like, but I’ve taken time to jot down this.
Some Utilitarians claim that humans are happiness maximisers or at least a large component of utility is happiness. Besides happiness (nor pleasure) is not everyone’s goal. Utility maximisation has a near-term bias, and preference theory leaves a lot to be desired.
Utilitarians are not hedonists, per se, but perhaps this is only moderated by the downsides attributed to excess.
Some people defer happiness in their engagements of so-called labours of love. Stereotypical entrepreneurs, forego near-term happiness in the hope of some future benefit. Given the low probability of even a remotely positive outcome, this is taking a lottery mentality. In the US, much entrepreneurship is reserved for the children of the affluent. This is a hobby, and they typically have several safety nets for the almost inevitable ensuing failure.
In any case, if happiness is a goal, rational choice and homo economicus have surely gone missing.
Buddhism has its Four Noble Truths:
Life is suffering
Suffering is due to attachment
There is a way to overcome attachment
Follow the Eightfold Path
Happiness-seeking is precisely what will ensure unhappiness. One might even argue that this is the general malaise evident in Western society. As Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and others have pointed out, people rather satisfice, a strategy of getting to good enough. Perhaps this is not letting perfection be enemy of the good, or perhaps this is somehow realising the asymptotic path of diminishing returns ahead.
Happiness should not be a goal; it’s a side-effect, a result of pursuing one’s interests. And happiness is ephemeral. We’re likely all aware of the person who was asking for just one thing to achieve happiness is quickly seeking the next thing because happiness comes with an expiration date.
Whether in English or in French, I don’t believe Foucault ever uttered the words, ‘It is meaningless to speak in the name of – or against – Reason, Truth, or Knowledge‘*, but I don’t think he’d disagree with the sentiment.
Foucault was a postmodernist, and on balance, political Conservatives (Rightists?) dislike the notion of postmodernism. Evidently, a lot of Postmodernists are also Leftists (Progressives or Liberals in the US), so somehow critics such as Jordan Peterson conflate the two clearly distinct concepts.
A basis for Conservatism is the notion of an objective truth, and despite recent sociopolitical trends, they at least say they are guardians or truth and purveyors of knowledge. Conservatives (OK, so I am broad-brushing here) are staunch individualists who believe strongly in possession and property, of material, of an objective reality. Fundamentally, the are aligned to a monotheistic god or at least some discernible (and objective) moral compass.
On the Left, especially post-Enlightenment, they’ve substituted God with some anthropomorphic Nature. In fact, they find comfort in natural laws and human nature. Science is often their respite because science is objective. Isn’t it? Leftists are friends or Reason, and one can’t acquire enough knowledge. Moderation need not apply here; the more the merrier.
This being said, evidently, many on the Left seem to have abandoned this comfort zone. Of course, this may be because the Left-Right dichotomy doesn’t capture the inherent nuance, and so they were miscategorised—perhaps, much in the same manner as persons are miscategorised in a binary gender system. No. It must be something else.
In any case, both side claim to the parties of knowledge, reason, and truth because the opposing parties are clearly abject morons. There is no hint of irony in the situation where each side claims some objective notion of truth—whether divinely granted or self-evidently reasoned—, yet they can’t resolve what the true truth is. If only the other side were more rational.
By now, we are well aware of the demise of homo economicus, the hyper-rational actor foundational to modern economic theory. In reality, humans are only rational given the loosest definitions, say, to (in most cases) know enough to get in the shade on a 37.2°C day. However, as behavioural economist Dan Ariely noted by the title of his book, people are Predictably Irrational. Ariely is just standing on the shoulders of Kahneman and Tversky and Richard Thaler. My point is that humans are only marginally rational.
As I’ve written elsewhere, truth is nothing more than a rhetorical endpoint. It is hardly objective. It’s a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, systems of government and jurisprudence require this objective truth. In truth—see what I did there?—, social fabric requires a shared notion of truth.
A shared notion doesn’t imply that this notion is objective, but if it’s not objective, how does one resolve differences of opinion as to which is the better truth. Without establishing a frame and a lens, this is impossible. The problem is that frames and lenses are also relative. Whether the members accept a given frame or lens is also a matter of rhetoric. It’s turtles all the way down.
Even if all members agree on all parameters of truth at day 0, there is nothing to prevent opinion changes or from new members not to share these parameters. Such is always the problem with social contract theory. [How does one commit to a contract s/he is born into with little recourse to rescind the contract, renegotiate terms, or choose a different contract option. The world is already carved up, and the best one can do is to jump from the frying pan into the fire.]
In the end, the notion of truth is necessary, but it doesn’t exist. Playing Devil’s advocate, let’s say that there is a single purveyor of Truth; let’s just say that it’s the monotheistic Abrahamic God of Judeo-Christian beliefs. There is no (known) way to ascertain that a human would have the privilege to know such a truth nor, if s/he were to encounter, say, a burning bush of some sort, that this entity would be conveying truth; so, we aren’t really in a better place. Of course, we could exercise faith and just believe, but this is a subjective action. We could also take Descarte’s line of logic and declare that a good God would not deceive us—sidestepping that this ethereal being was good, as advertised. I’m afraid it’s all dead ends here, too.
And so, we are back to where we started: no objective truth, limited ability to reason, and some fleeting notion of knowledge. We are still left with nothing.
Enter the likes of Jordan Peterson, he with his fanciful notion of metaphysics and morality—a channeller of Carl Jung. His tactic is to loud dog the listener and outshout them indignantly. His followers, already primed with a shared worldview, are adept (or inept) cheerleaders ready to uncritically echo his refrain. To them, his virtue-ethical base, steeped in consequentialism awash in deontology, Peterson speaks the truth.
He also potentiates the selfish anti-collective germ and rage of the declining white man. He’s sort of a less entertaining Howard Stern for the cleverer by half crowd. He gives a voice to the voiceless—or perhaps the thoughtless. He uses ‘reason’ to back his emotional pleas. He finds a voice in the wilderness where white Western males are the oppressed. If only they hadn’t been born centuries earlier—albeit with iPhones and microwaves.
Those would be the days.
* I believe this phrase attributed to Foucault was a paraphrase by philosopher Todd May.
As I read his Utilitarianism, I want to like John Stuart Mill. He seems like such a clever man, but he is a victim of his Enlightenment Age. Attempting to fabricate order created by science’s encroachment on the absolutes of religion and the shifting sentiments toward monarchies, Mill tries to replace this moral compass with Jeremy Bentham‘s utility.
£1 ≠ £1
The problem is that despite (sort of) dispensing of religious doctrine, Mill was still fettered by the dogma of virtue ethics of dignity and duty. To this, he adds happiness. Not to go full-on Foucault, but these are concepts leveraged, like religion, to maintain power—take an elevated system in a constructed society, and the duty becomes a burden to the bottom, save for pretence of duty and dignity at the top.
I’ve had an issue with the concept of virtue and all of its offspring: duty, justice, and so on. I’ll likely write about this later. I expect that I’ll be reading Mill’s On Liberty next, so stay tuned.
Ignoring my contention that Utilitarianism is baseless, I have two other issues, using economic examples, each related to prospect theory (pdf):
Regressivity: A person with less money values an incremental dollar more than a person with more money.
Loss to gain asymmetry due to risk aversion: A person values losing a dollar more than earning a dollar, ceteris paribus.
Pareto efficiency, a cornerstone of Classical economics, does not take this into account. For this theory, all dollars are created (or perceived to be) equal, so it doesn’t matter whether person A, who earns £10,000 p.a., or person B, who earns £100.000 p.a., gets £100, but in the real world, person A would give it a higher value, so a transfer from A to B would be an inferior transaction to a B to A transaction.
This said, person B values the £100 more than having gained the amount, but it is not clear how to reconcile (in order to reach perceived parity) what the fair equilibrium would be, allowing that equality of outcome might not be the desired outcome.